Climate action: Activism and divestment are in our hands

Maya de Souza shows the connection between investment and climate change.

Maya de Souza held a Dartmouth Park Talk about the climate emergency in Camden - Credit: Archant

As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s time for hard thinking on how we safeguard people and our planet against future crises.

We know that governments are tempted to wish away crises, and are not as prepared as we may have thought. Fortunately, we are far from powerless. We have influence in many ways: as campaigners, customers, residents and investors.

As to investor power, we are nearly all investors: through pension funds, councils or universities. As beneficiaries, students, residents, all can seek to influence these bodies.

One approach is to push for divestment from the worst-offending companies, those continuing to seek new and exploit existing fossil fuel reserves. Twenty fossil fuel giants are linked to one third of all global emissions; eight of these are shareholder owned. They have little place in a net-zero emission world, which is what we need to achieve by 2050, if not long before. By divesting, we give a signal to those sectors that the cost of borrowing for them will go up. We signal to other investors that they are holding risky assets. The message is to shift focus. Oil giants like BP and Shell are well-positioned to shift to wind power, hydrogen and other solutions.

Another option is for an “activist investor” approach. This was pursued by Oxford students to ensure university funds are invested in accordance with a net-zero strategy. The university requires all those companies it invests in to have such a plan.

Other activist approaches can be combined: identifying issues, whether deforestation in the Congo or water pollution in Bangladesh, and seeking to ensure the company changes its practices. Camden Council manages its funds through the Local Government Pension Scheme, and its fund managers adopt an activist approach.

Despite these options, pension fund advisers throw their hands up and talk about how trustee “fiduciary duties” mean they cannot restrict their choices. However, following the Law Commission’s analysis, it is clear trustees can take into account such considerations. Moreover, government guidance following the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures report emphasizes the need for trustees to take on board climate risk.

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It warns against investing in companies which are highly vulnerable in the face of evolving policy and changes in consumer and investor behaviour. There are many examples of funds being managed responsibly with good returns. So it is hard for an organisation to justify not having an effective policy nor plain divestment from the worst offenders.

Camden Council has an activist approach but there is little if any evidence of impact. So we need to hold it to account.

Lobbying universities is also vital. The University Superannuation Scheme, with over 400,000 members and £68bn funds, is the largest fund in the UK. They have finally this June made a commitment to divest from tobacco, coal and cluster munitions. That’s a start, but more can be done. You may be thinking that you don’t have a pension, let alone a share. But even then one can have impact. As Shareholder Action explains in a report, 131 people, with a share each, managed to rattle Barclays, a big investor in fossil fuels, to consider action.

So if you are beginning to feel energised to do your bit, get in touch with campaigners. Share Action and Divest Camden are a good place to start.

• Maya de Souza is a former Camden councillor and is co-convenor of Dartmouth Park Talks, a platform for discussion on issues facing our local and global community: