The divestment controversy: should fossil fuels go the way of the dinosaurs?

Sunday 18 October, 17.30 until 18.45, Frobisher 5-6 Economic solutions?

In September 2014, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced it would sell off its investments in fossil fuels. Although the fund’s investments were relatively small, this was a symbolic moment, given that the Rockefellers made their money through JD Rockefeller’s stake in Standard Oil. The announcement was part of a growing movement, most notably promoted by the Guardian’s ‘Keep It In the Ground’ campaign, for charities, academic institutions and pension funds to renounce their fossil-fuel investments. Campaign group Fossil Free UK explains: ‘Divestment isn’t primarily an economic strategy, but a moral and political one. As our public institutions take a moral stand and divest from fossil fuel companies, we remove the financial social and political license these companies need to operate.’

However, many institutions have resisted the push to divest. For example, the Wellcome Trust has refused, though director Jeremy Farrar added that ‘when we are not satisfied that a company is engaging with our concerns, we are perfectly prepared to sell’. But while campaigners like Archbishop Desmond Tutu have argued that there is a moral case for divestment, the world will need fossil fuels for many years to come. For example, the International Energy Agency believes fossil fuels will still have to meet 76 per cent of energy needs in 2035, even with substantial investment in low-carbon alternatives. As long as renewable energy sources like wind and solar remain expensive and unreliable, the developing world will undoubtedly continue to expand its use of fossil fuels. And as the American writer Alex Epstein has argued, if our moral yardstick is the welfare of humanity, then there is a moral case to be made for retaining fossil fuels, which have been central to our material progress for over 200 years.

Does the campaign to divest from fossil fuels have merit? If we are serious about tackling climate change, can we afford to encourage further fossil-fuel use? On the other hand, given that alternative investors may be happy to accept the opportunity to buy the shares that divesting institutions sell, does divestment actually achieve anything? If not, is the real point of the campaign to allow many in the wealthy West to demonstrate their ethical credentials, regardless of the effectiveness or consequences of divestment?

Paul Dickinson
executive chairman, CDP, driving sustainable economies

John Gapper
columnist , Financial Times

Rob Lyons
science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum

Danni Paffard
divestment campaigner,

Phil Mullan
economist and business manager; author, Creative Destruction: How to start an economic renaissance

Produced by
Rob Lyons science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum
Recommended readings
Divesting from free speech Rachelle Peterson, spiked, September 2015

There is a moral case for fossil fuels

Alex Epstein tells spiked why we need to celebrate our impact on nature

Tim Black, spiked, August 2015

Fossil fuel campaigners play charades

Why should funds listen to a protest that is not taken seriously by the activists themselves?

John Gapper, FT, 15 April 2015

Tough love, is divesting from fossil fuel the only answer? Paul Dickinson, Sustainability, 16 February 2015

Global Warming's Terrifying New Math

Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe - and that make clear who the real enemy is.

Bill McKibben, Rolling Stone, 19 July 2012

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