Hundreds of climate change activists descended on London’s City Hall on Saturday, February 14, to put pressure on Boris Johnson and the Greater London authority to divest from polluting fossil fuels. The action was part of a series of 500 coordinated events in 67 countries on Global Divestment Day, which calls on companies, governments, universities and other public institutions to break their financial ties with the fossil fuel industry and end their investments in one of the major drivers of climate change.
As a major financial centre, London is a key hub for fossil fuel investment and many of the world’s most powerful oil and mining companies are based in the city, which makes it a key battleground in the fight to prevent climate change.
“I want to live in a city that is doing everything it can to build a more just future, led by the needs and aspirations of its citizens,” explained Sunniva Taylor, a campaigner with Bright Now, the church divestment campaign. “Instead I live in a city where fossil fuel companies have a huge amount of power. As well as the London Pension Fund Authority having millions of pounds invested in fossil fuel companies, Westminster politics is heavily influenced by their lobbying. Their logos are all over our art institutions and London-based churches and universities continue to profit from their fossil fuel investments.”
Through a symbolic flooding of City Hall, the raucous behaviour of their “Bad Boy Boris Johnsons”, speeches and giant human letters that spelled out “Divest London”, activists from Divest London and Fossil Free UK. sought to highlight London’s political and economic links to fossil fuel companies and urge the London mayor to get out of bed with the industry.
“Today’s protest demonstrated the strength of public support for divestment, and the growing impatience that so many of us feel about our politicians failing to show real leadership on climate change,” said Rebecca Newsom, from Fossil Free SOAS and Divest London. “It was amazing to be part of a global network of over 400 other divestment campaigns taking place across six continents – all demanding that our public and political institutions cut their ties with the dirty fossil fuel industry and put their money where their mouth is on climate change.”
In just two years, the global divestment movement has grown to include cities, universities, sovereign wealth funds and other organisations who have rejected fossil fuels and chosen instead to channel their investment into renewables and clean energy. To date it’s estimated that funds in control of $50 billion of investment capital have already divested and growing support indicates this figure is only set to increase. The divestment movement has already been identified by the fossil fuel industry itself as one of the most serious challenges to business as usual.
“Divestment is a fantastic tactic to highlight what’s really driving climate change: fossil fuels, the companies and institutions that profit from their extraction, and the governments that allow this to continue,” explains Sunniva. “By demanding that our public institutions divest from fossil fuels we stigmatise the fossil fuel industry and put a moral question mark over it. By doing so, we create the space for alternative voices and policies to emerge that enable a clean, safe and fairer future fuelled by renewable energy.”
Speakers from Colombia and Bangladesh connected the decisions made in London boardrooms to communities who suffer from mineral extraction and environmental destruction in other parts of the world. “Today’s protest was especially important for us because a London-based and listed British company is trying to implement an open pit coal mine project in north-west Bangladesh, displacing at least 130,000 people but also threatening the water resources for 220,000 people,” explained Rumana Hashem, from the Bangladesh National Committee to Protect Oil Gas Mineral Resources Power and Ports. “They are going to economically exploit Bangladesh because they are only giving us a 6% royalty, leaving themselves with the other 94%, and will get a nine year tax holiday. So we have been protesting and we are resisting this mine. My call to Boris, the mayor of London, would be to take this corporation out of Bangladesh and also to divest London from fossil fuels.”
Oxford and Bristol have become the first UK cities to divest and have been joined by Glasgow and Bedfordshire universities, with many more local authorities and educational institutions under pressure to follow suit. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the largest of its kind in the world, recently divested and this has been the most high profile decision so far, but there remains a lot to do.
To find out where the movement goes from here, we asked Rebecca for Divest London’s call to action. “Start your own divestment campaign!” she explained. “Hundreds of our public institutions, political authorities and pension funds invest millions in the fossil fuel industry without us even knowing it. We need the help of as many people as possible to unpick this dirty web of connections between the oil barons and the people and organisations that represent us, so we can make fossil fuels a thing of the past, once and for all.”