Can The Church save the climate?

Written by Rebecca Jones on 28th Aug 2019

Religion isn’t what it used to be. In an increasingly secular nation, fewer and fewer of us look to God or Her incarnations for a steer on how to live our lives. However, many of us do still expect a certain moral standard from The Church, particularly around its investment portfolio, which in the past has come under scrutiny for holdings in less than upstanding companies.

In recent years, this has extended to the Church’s investment in the fossil fuel industry. In 2015 the Church of England (CofE) divested completely from companies that generate more than 10 per cent of revenues from the extraction of thermal coal and tar sands – withdrawing around £12 million from these industries. This was soon followed by the Church of Scotland (CofS) and the Church of Wales, which also sold off their holdings in these most polluting of fossil fuels.

More recently, the CofE pension fund in collaboration with the investor collation Climate Action 100 (which includes over 300 institutional investors with more than £27 trillion in assets under management) also piled on the pressure at Royal Dutch Shell to force the board to link executive pay with carbon reduction targets.

A number of other impressive commitments have been made, including a recent pledge at the CofE to divest from companies whose business plans are not aligned with the Paris Climate Accord by 2023, while in June the Scottish Episcopal Church passed a motion at the General Synod recognising the ‘moral imperative’ to divest fully from fossil fuels.

Just this week, the Catholic Church also signed one of the UK’s largest ever green energy contracts. The deal will see more than 4,500 churches and schools switching to renewable gas and electricity supplied by British Gas, covering churches in 20 of the 22 Catholic dioceses in England and Wales.

A long engagement

The fact remains, however, that the Church’s of England, Scotland and Wales remain invested in the fossil fuel industry to the tune of millions, perhaps billions, of pounds (the Church of England alone boasts a £12.5 billion investment portfolio). And while it is leading on renewable energy supply, not a single Catholic diocese has made a commitment to divest from fossil fuels.

In the past both the Church’s of England and Scotland have been firm on the value of engagement over divestment, citing the big win at Shell as case-in-point. Speaking to Good With Money,

Adam Matthews, director of ethics and engagement at the CofE says: “I believe we have the opportunity to change companies’ behaviours and we can do that by working with them, using our position as shareholders to secure commitments for change in their business practices. I think we are uniquely placed with other major institutional investors to actually utilise our position to engage.

“Now, I don’t think that is an open-ended, timeless commitment, and I think that the 2023 initiative set out by Climate Action 100 will demonstrate the influence that pension funds can have on these companies. I do believe it is possible for a company to change, and I think that timeframe gives them the opportunity to do that.”

As the above decision to begin divestment in 2023 (which was passed by a landslide 347 to 4 vote at The Church’s General Synod in 2018) shows, though, opinion is beginning to change among church members, especially younger delegates.

At the Church of Scotland, a motion to divest fully from fossil fuels was only narrowly defeated at the Church’s General Assembly in May this year, something that Adrian Shaw, climate change officer at the Church of Scotland says was a bitter disappointment to the Church’s National Youth Assembly.

Shaw explains: “Following the publication of the UN’s IPCC report in October last year – which showed we have just 12 years to bring carbon emissions low enough to meet global warming targets – we saw a massive upsurge in interest on the issue of climate change, especially among our younger members.

“At the Church of Scotland there is concern around investing in fossil fuels and we will continue to discuss it at our General Assemblies. The next one will convene in May 2020 and the more support we can get on this the better.”

Devoted divestment

Among other Christian factions, the picture is a little different, however. The Quakers of Britain, for example, fully divested from all fossil fuels way back in 2013, as did the Catholic religious order ‘The Passionists’ in 2016, The Church of Ireland (Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland) in 2018, while the United Reformed Church plans to this year.

James Buchanan from Operation Noah, a Christian charity working with the Church to inspire action on climate change, is of the view that divestment really is the only way to go.

He says: “On average, just 3 per cent of oil and gas majors’ revenues are going into renewable energy. As the IPCC report underlined, at this stage incremental change really isn’t enough: we need radical change and the best way of doing that is by investing in clean technology and renewable energy, not in fossil fuel companies.

“People in poverty that have done the least to cause climate change are the ones most affected by it. This injustice should be a motivation to act. The world is a gift and it should be looked after and protected.”

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