An increasing number of cities across the globe, including Norway’s capital Oslo, are pledging to divest from fossil fuels. Some are going even further by cutting their use of oil, coal, or natural gas.
They're boosting a divestment campaign that began as a millennial crusade on college campuses three years ago but has quickly spread to churches and foundations, including one created with the fortune of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller.
On Wednesday at UN climate talks in Paris, campaign acitivists announced that Paris and 18 other French municipalities have approved steps to divest from companies that produce fossil fuels. The cities, encouraged to divest by a recent French Parliament resolution, include Bordeaux, Dijon, Lille, and Saint-Denis.
At least 60 other cities, including Melbourne and San Francisco, and local governments in 10 wealthy countries support full or partial divestment. Some focus solely on the dirtiest fossil fuel, coal, which emits twice as much carbon dioxide when burned as natural gas.
“Cities are moving to the forefront in the fight against climate change,” says Jamie Henn, co-founder and spokesman of 350.org, a grassroots group that's coordinating the divestment campaign along with the Divest-Invest coalition. “They know firsthand the problems brought about by fossil fuels, from urban air pollution to rising seas,” he says, adding they’re setting an example for state and national governments. (Read more about climate change.)
Some cities are shifting not only their investments but also their power mix. The California cities of San Francisco and Santa Monica, which have pledged divestment, have set targets of getting all their electricity from renewable energy. Two others, Oslo and Seattle, now get 98 percent from non-fossil fuel sources, primarily hydropower, according to a survey this year by CDP, a not-for-profit group formerly known as Carbon Disclosure Project.
Even capitals not divesting are nixing fossil fuel. Australia's Canberra has committed to getting 90 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020 and Sweden's Stockholm aims to use zero fossil fuels by 2040, reports CDP. (Find out which of 162 cities worldwide are closest to eliminating fossil fuels.)
Yet the divestment campaign is growing. It now includes more than 500 institutions representing at least $3.4 trillion in assets, up from $50 billion just 14 months ago,according to 350.org. Only a small fraction of those assets are likely invested directly in fossil-fuel stocks, but participants are noteworthy: Dutch pension fund PFZW is divesting from coal companies, the London School of Economics from coal and tar sands, and Germany’s Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau from all fossil fuels.
The campaign is the fastest growing divestment movement in history and could damage coal, gas and oil companies, says a 2013 study by the University of Oxford. It follows prior U.S.-originated efforts against tobacco, violence in Sudan's Darfur, and apartheid in South Africa. Desmond Tutu, who fought apartheid, also opposes fossil fuels: “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.”
Why Some Reject Divestment
Some are saying no. In May, London Mayor Boris Johnson rejected a call from the London Assembly to divest City Hall’s pension fund. He called divestment a “cliff edge” and said the United Kingdom needs fracking to avoid dependence on Russia and the Middle East for natural gas.
That same month, Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College—widely considered the birthplace of the fossil fuel divestment movement—announced it would not drop fossil fuel stocks from its $1.9 billion endowment. Its board chairman Gil Kemp said the small liberal arts college was “fully committed to addressing the threat of climate change” through other means.
Harvard University, which has the world’s largest academic endowment of at least $32 billion, took the same view. In a lengthy 2013 commentary, its president Drew Gilpin Faust said divestment was not “warranted or wise.” She said benefactors gave to the endowment “to advance academic aims, not to serve other purposes, however worthy.” She said divestment would come at a “substantial economic cost” and “diminish the influence or voice we might have with this industry.” Plus, she said it posed a “troubling inconsistency,” since individuals rely on fossil fuels for “so much of what we do every day.”
Others disagree. Silicon Valley’s Stanford University has divested from coal companies, United Kingdom's Oxford University, from coal and tar sands, and New York’s Syracuse University, from all fossil fuels.
Some cities such as San Francisco that have pledged divestment have yet to drop all holdings in the fossil fuel industry. Still, many are planning to do so, including Minneapolis and nearly three dozen others in the United States as well as cities in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Notably, the divestment campaign has also gained the support of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Built with oil money, the fund now devotes half its grants to promoting renewable energy and climate research. Its president Stephen Heintz said John D. Rockefeller believed in innovation and in founding Standard Oil, he put an older industry—whale oil—out of business.
"I'm convinced that if he were alive today," Heintz said in an interview last year, "he'd be looking out to the future and investing in clean energy technology."