Ellie Roberts – The campaign to persuade Churches to divest

Ellie Roberts photo lower resEllie Roberts works on the Bright Now campaign at Operation Noah. Operation Noah is an ecumenical Christian charity providing leadership, focus and inspiration in response to the growing threat of catastrophic climate change. Operation Noah’s Bright Now campaign calls for UK Churches to disinvest from fossil fuel companies, to take a leading role in the national debate on the ethics of fossil fuel investments, and to use their investments to support the development of renewable energies and other clean technologies.

Brighthelm_mastheadTell us about Operation Noah and the Bright Now Campaign – what are you hoping to achieve and how are you going about it?

Ellie Roberts photo lower resOperation Noah is an ecumenical Christian charity focusing on the Christian response to climate change. Operation Noah’s Bright Now campaign calls for UK Churches to disinvest from companies involved in fossil fuel extraction; take a leading role in the national debate on the ethics of fossil fuel investments; and reinvest in clean alternatives to fossil fuels.

We want UK Churches to publicly disinvest from coal, oil and gas companies, to send the fossil fuel industry a strong signal that it needs to urgently change its business strategy. We believe that the Church can be a prophetic, hopeful voice on climate change. However, while it is financially tied to fossil fuel companies, and its investments are reliant on the extraction and use of fossil fuels, it cannot lead the transition towards a cleaner future.

Churches and faith communities around the world – including the World Council of Churches, the Church of Sweden, and Anglican dioceses in New Zealand and Australia – are adding their voice to the global divestment movement by committing to disinvest their funds from fossil fuel companies, joining Universities, local authorities, health organisations and trusts. As an ever increasing number disinvest, the debate over a world economy and energy system reliant on fossil fuels – as well as the political power of the fossil fuel industry – is shifting, opening the space for global action on climate change.

We support Christian groups to take action by raising motions through their Churches and moving their own finances away from fossil fuels, either as an individual Church or a regional Church body. Quakers in Britain and Brighthelm URC have already disinvested, while the Diocese of Oxford passed a resolution in 2014 urging the Church of England to disinvest.

We also encourage creative actions that raise the profile of the fossil fuel debate within the Church. As part of Global Divestment Day this year, we delivered a giant Valentine’s Day card to the Church of England and Methodist Church filled with calls for disinvestment from our supporters. We have also seen actions from grassroots groups such as Christian Climate Action, who held a Divestment Party on the steps of St Paul’s, performed a fossil free nativity outside Methodist Central Hall and dropped a banner during the Church of England’s General Synod in February.

Brighthelm_mastheadWhat response are you getting from within the Church of England hierarchy, and faith groups?   What arguments get the most traction – is it the moral case, or the financial one?

Ellie Roberts photo lower resBoth the Church of England and Methodist Church are reviewing their investment policies in the context of climate change, including their investments in fossil fuels, and are due to report back this year. Local Church groups are bringing this issue to their decision-makers more and more; the Oxford Diocese Resolution will be debated at Church of England Synod later in 2015.

Both the moral and financial arguments for disinvestment are gaining traction. Disinvestment is a moral issue because we know that burning all of the world’s fossil fuel reserves would take us way beyond the 2°C temperature rise limit agreed by world governments, causing catastrophic levels of climate change that would impact the poorest and most vulnerable communities first. Carbon Tracker’s ‘Unburnable Carbon’ report shows that 80% of reserves need to stay underground to reduce the chance of exceeding 2°C to 20%.

Despite this, companies continue to base their business strategies on increasing exploration and extraction of coal, oil and gas. Shell’s strategic report for 2014 promises investors that the company will improve financial returns and cash flow through greater extraction of oil and gas and increased acquisition of fossil fuel reserves, stating that it intends to use 85% of capital investment to explore new oil and gas reserves and develop major new extraction projects.[1]

Given this contradiction between the science and the fossil fuel industry’s response, it is our view that it cannot be considered ethical for the Church to provide capital to, or profit from, the extraction of fossil fuels.

The idea that fossil fuel investments are becoming increasingly risky is also gaining traction among Churches and mainstream financial analysts. Just this week the Bank of England warned that fossil fuel assets will see a drastic fall in value and could become ‘stranded’ if policy changes to limit carbon emissions.[2] Church investors have a fiduciary duty to protect their investment returns and are taking these concerns seriously.

Brighthelm_mastheadWhat are the concerns being raised by those who aren’t yet convinced that the divestment movement needs to respond to?

Ellie Roberts photo lower resAn emerging debate within the Church of England and other denominations is whether disinvestment or engagement with companies will have the greatest influence.

While the resolutions submitted by the Church to the Shell and BP AGMs this year mark a positive step, they fail to address the fact that the majority of the companies’ reserves need to stay underground.

To make a fossil fuel company ethical, Churches – which are small investors for companies such as Shell and BP – would need to persuade them to abandon the majority of their reserves and develop a rapid business plan to transition towards providing clean energy. They would therefore need to ask them to stop being a fossil fuel company. The Church does not invest in the arms or tobacco industries because it opposes their fundamental business. Until BP and Shell invest the majority of their expertise and resources in developing clean technology solutions, they too cannot be considered an ethical investment.

Another key challenge for Churches considering disinvestment is the concern that removing fossil fuel companies will negatively impact an investment portfolio. While all investments are of course a risk and returns can never be guaranteed, numerous studies demonstrate that the financial risk associated with disinvesting is much less significant than perceived by investors.

A financial impact report prepared for the Church of England General Synod debate on environmental issues in February 2014 demonstrates that the financial impact of screening fossil fuel companies from an investment portfolio would be very small. The report found that between 2001 and 2013 the MSCI All World equity index has outperformed the same index excluding oil and gas companies by an average of just 0.25% per annum.

Other studies have found that fossil free portfolios can outperform conventional fossil fuel-dependent investments. In 2013 Impax Asset Management found that removing fossil fuels from the MSCI World Index and adding renewable energy and energy efficiency alternatives would have generated better returns over the 7 years preceding 2013. This mirrors similar research carried out by MSCI, Aperio Group and the Australia Institute.

For further exploration of the ethical and financial arguments for disinvestment, please download our reports from http://brightnow.org.uk/resources/.


[1] Royal Dutch Shell, ‘Strategic Report’, 2013, http://reports.shell.com/annual-report/2013/servicepages/downloads/files/entire_strategic_report_shell_ar13.pdf

[2] Guardian, ‘Bank of England warns of financial risk from fossil fuel investments’, March 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/03/bank-of-england-warns-of-financial-risk-from-fossil-fuel-investments


Do you agree with Ellie?  Use the comment box below …  

(All comments will be subject to moderation before being published; long comments may be shortened)

Click here to return to the contents page


3 Responses to Ellie Roberts – The campaign to persuade Churches to divest

  1. Alex Mabbs says:

    Thanks for this, Ellie. As a minister I know that Churches & church bodies have a lot of pressing business on their agendas. Why do you think divestment should be up there alongside evangelism or the hole in the roof?


    • Ellie Roberts says:

      Thanks Alex. Of course, Churches and church bodies have to consider many important issues that require their time, energy and resources.

      For the Church climate change is a central issue because it is fundamentally an issue of justice. Climate change is already affecting people’s lives and livelihoods around the world, particularly the poorest communities who have done the least to contribute to its cause.

      Climate change is not more or less important than tackling poverty, inequality, conflict and injustice in the UK and around the world. These issues are not independent of one another; we cannot build a more equal and peaceful world without ensuring a stable climate.

      Divestment is a statement of hope that a cleaner and juster future – one free from catastrophic climate change – is possible. By divesting, Churches show their readiness to create an energy system that does not rely on polluting fuels.

      I believe that the decisions that Churches make with their money are an expression of faith, and are in this way an act of evangelism. Putting money in positive, life-giving investments is one way that Churches live out their values of justice, care for all communities and stewardship of Creation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • urcearthyear says:

        Well said. It would be good to see more churches putting their money where their mouth is. In fact, it would be good for all ethical bodies to have a serious look at how their practical ethics, i.e. what they actually do, align with their ideals & the world they claim to be wanting to work towards. To my mind, at least, there’s a big dissonance between a church talking about the love of God for the world, or a charity funding research to improve health, or a pension fund resourcing the long-term future of its members – and those bodies also promoting climate change through their investment in fossil-fuel industries.


Leave a comment or question

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s