Anglican £12bn investment funds in threat to fossil fuel companies

The Church of England’s £12bn endowment and investment funds will sell their shares in any fossil fuel companies that are slow to tackle global warming from 2023 after Anglican clergy voted in support of divestment in a hugely symbolic move on Sunday.

At its General Synod, the church’s parliament, bishops, clergy and laity voted voted 347 to 4 in favour of selling their holdings in any fossil fuel companies that by 2023 have not aligned their businesses with the Paris Agreement to restrict global temperature rises to below 2° Celsius.

The move by the UK’s established church, whose supreme governor is the Queen, marks one of toughest stances taken yet by a large religious community. The Church of England said the vote made clear “that the Church must play a leading role and exercise its moral leadership on the urgent issue of climate change”.

The vote comes in the wake of warnings about the impact of global warming by religious leaders globally, including Pope Francis, who last week said climate change risks turning the earth into pile of “rubble, deserts and refuse”.

Christian Aid’s head of UK advocacy Tom Viita said the vote showed that “the bell is tolling for the fossil fuel era”.

“This vote puts the oil majors on notice, and strengthens the arm of those pushing the companies to move more quickly to a low-carbon future,” he added.

Ahead of Sunday’s vote, 10 bishops and more than 50 members of the clergy wrote an open letter saying divestment would enable the church to “demonstrate credible leadership on one of the most important moral issues of our time”.

The amendment passed on Sunday was less strict than the one initally proposed ahead of the synod. That would have forced the church to sell out of fossil fuel companies that failed to meet the Paris Agreement by 2020.

Prior to the vote, the Church Commissioners and the Church of England Pensions Board, which are charged with overseeing the investments, argued such a move would be premature.

“Our active engagement and collaboration with other investors are changing companies’ behaviour, providing greater leverage and influence than we could achieve simply by selling our holdings. We are not convinced that forced divestment will bring about the change we need to see,” it said last week.

David Walker, Bishop of Manchester and deputy chair of the Church Commissioners, said during the debate that the divesting in 2020 would not spur companies to make change.

“2023 accords better with our strategy. It gives engagement the time it needs,” he added.

The Church Commissioners co-filed a motion at ExxonMobil, the oil company, last year calling for improved disclosure of climate-related risks, which was passed by investors. The body has also been a vocal member of the Church Investors Group, a coalition of religious investors that have pledged to take a tough stance against companies over global warming.

The vote in synod applies to the Church Commissioners’ £8.3bn investment pot, as well as £2.3bn retirement fund overseen by the pensions board and a further £2bn of other Church of England funds. The funds sold out of coal and tar sands in 2015.

The Church Commissioners said they had about £123bn invested in oil and gas companies in their equity portfolio of last December. The companies accounted for 4.48 per cent of the equities portfolio, compared to 6.99 per cent for the benchmark.

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