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Analysis: Church of England unites behind grassroots environmental motion

“Now the hard work starts,” says proponent

The Church of England is nothing if not a broad church, and so it proved again last week when its general assembly united behind a grassroots motion that puts environmental issues right back onto the agenda.

The General Synod resoundingly backed a call for the Church’s National Investing Bodies (NIBs) to ensure that their investment policy is aligned with the theological, moral and social priorities of the Church. It also called on the Church’s Ethical investment Advisory Group (EIAG) to publish the report of its review on environmental matters by the end of 2014. And it agreed to the establishment of a working group on the environment.

The motion itself grew out of the Lambeth North parish in south London that is home not just to the South Bank arts complex, the London Eye but also…oil major Shell’s UK headquarters.

Part of the Southwark Diocese, the parish is centred on the church of St John the Evangelist – just a stone’s throw from the prominent Shell building.
The motion that was proposed at the Synod by local priest Canon Giles Goddard originated with a challenge from one of his parishioners, who seeing Shell’s presence in the area, questioned the Church’s engagement with the fossil fuel industry more widely.
Via a series of amendments, the initial resolution eventually made its way onto the agenda for the General Synod. The final version that was voted on at the assembly clearly sought to avoid a polarised debate about fossil fuel divestment in particular, and it seems to have succeeded given the 274-1 vote in its favour. This now provides a strong mandate for the Church to explore the whole issue; how it does so could form an interesting case study in itself.Goddard, who is on the board of campaign group Operation Noah, whose Bright Now initiative seeks disinvestment from fossil fuels, and progressive Anglican organisation Inclusive Church, tweeted after the vote that he was very relieved but added: “Now the hard work starts.”
Speaking after the vote, Goddard noted how climate change had fallen down the Church’s agenda in the last few years; the last time the Synod talked about it was in 2008. There had been some good work by the church’s ‘Shrinking the Footprint’ national green campaign, “but we need to do far more”. He said: “We’re hoping the church can kick start a new conversation to counteract the reality of climate change.”

He went on: “There is an issue at the moment about whether it is sensible to be investing in fossil fuels. It’s not for me to say to the [Church] investing bodies you should or shouldn’t, but what we do say to the investment bodies – and we’ve had a very good response from them over all of this – please do what you can us transition to a low carbon economy.” Goddard acknowledges that divestment is a “last resort”. He wanted churches to help the lobbying effort ahead of the Paris 2015 United Nations climate change meeting (COP21) – noting that Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is keen for faith groups to speak more clearly on the issue.

Operation Noah’s Chair, Isabel Carter, responding to the Synod vote, said the Church had taken the “first step” to re-engaging with climate change: “This vote commits the Church to seriously consider how its investments reflect the urgency of climate change, including the option of disinvestment from fossil fuels.”

Ahead of the vote, Revd. Professor Richard Burridge, Deputy Chair of the EIAG, made a strong case for the Church’s current initiatives around climate change, for example the ‘Aiming for A’ engagement initiative with large UK extractives and utilities companies. But he made the point that excluding fossil fuel companies would mean that 14.25% of the UK’s FTSE350 index would be excluded. In addition to the 12.25% of the market already out of bounds due to existing ethical investment policies, “this would leave 26.5% of the index excluded from investment, and a higher risk of financial detriment”.

Burridge said that a specific area of the Shrinking the Footprint campaign that is not in the investment bodies’ current climate change policy – emissions reduction targets – would be considered and the feasibility of setting carbon footprint targets would also be examined. “However, it is likely to be some time before the means exist to facilitate the assessment of the carbon footprints of complex multi-asset investment portfolios.”

The EIAG was aware of the need for fossil fuel-based energy and of the fact that any transition to a low carbon economy would take time.“However the merits of the exclusion of some companies from investment (‘the option of disinvestment’) will be fully considered”. One possibility here was coal mining.

Burridge also reckoned it would be “highly desirable” for any decision by the EIAG and the national bodies to reflect updated work on climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and investment consultant Mercer that is expected this year. Burridge anticipated any new policy would be published “as soon as feasible” in 2015.

He said the ethical panel was “reaching out” to stakeholders to gather views; indeed a survey found that the majority of respondents preferred divestment from fossil fuel companies. Burridge said: “Establishing whether stakeholders feel so strongly that they are prepared to accept the possibility of financial detriment is a way of determining the extent to which the [Church] ‘might lose supporters or beneficiaries’ if the NIBs continue to invest in fossil fuel companies. Virtually identical constraints on ethical investment also apply to pension funds.”