Andrew Boff AM is the leader of the Conservative Group on the London Assembly.
It has always struck me how often the loudest voices in an environmental campaign are not those of local communities, but rather activist groups who arrive in an area to make their point – regardless of local sentiment. I am disappointed to see that this seems to be happening again in my Hackney community, this time around the issue of ridding the council’s pension fund of fossil fuel-related investments.
Led by Baroness Jones and Caroline Lucas, the Green Party has lobbied in favour of this strategy – known as fossil fuel divestment – in three different public forums with no success: in London with the Mayor, the London Assembly and the London Pension Fund Authority; in Parliament, with the Department of Communities and Local Government, and at 10 Downing Street – all of which have declined motions to divest public funds of fossil fuels, or have admitted that it’s simply not a priority. Why? Because following a divestment strategy could lead to weaker returns, leaving local pensioners, teachers, healthcare workers and so on with less in their pockets. So by giving up shares in these companies, the council is giving up its seat at the table as shareholders for the sake of a fruitless movement.
Given this continual failure by activists to convince decision-makers of their cause, divestment enthusiasts in and out of government – such as Divest Hackney, which hosted a ‘panel discussion’ on the topic, the “Hackney Divestment Debate” – have chosen to take a more ‘grassroots’ approach by influencing local councils to do their bidding, with little to no financial merit to back their case. (This ‘debate’ in reality was more of a rally, since all of the panellists were on the same side.) There were representatives from the Guardian and 350.org, partners in a global ‘Keep it in the ground’ campaign, along with Carbon Tracker, ShareAction and Medact – all of which have lobbied and published material on the benefits of divesting of such a vital sector as fossil fuels. For the sake of transparency alone, Hackney citizens have been denied the opportunity for a full-informed discussion.
The debate in general also seems to be absent of any sense of how crucial a role fossil fuels will play in transitioning the UK to a lower carbon economy. Natural gas in particular has helped the US reduce carbon emissions by 200 million tonnes from 2008-2012, according to the International Energy Agency, which put the change down to a switch to gas away from coal. Whilst I hope that in my lifetime we will be able to get the vast majority of our energy from renewable sources, we need a transition plan to get to that point.
Looking at the fundamentals of the divestment issue, there are several factors to consider before we simply file behind this “feelgood” campaign. While much of this debate seems to be rooted in genuine concern over the effects of climate change, there is little proof that divestment will have any tangible, positive impact. As a 2013 report from Oxford’s Smith School concluded that divestment “has little hope of directly impacting the future cash flows of fossil fuel companies”. And as Bill Gates has recently said, there doesn’t seem to be “a direct path between divesting and solving climate change.”
But perhaps this is what professional campaigners want out of this process: to convince enough small communities to divest so that a statement can be made about how upset they are, financed by reducing the income of pensioners. If that is a price future pensioners are willing to pay then I think they need to be asked: don’t you?