Green Tau: issue 36

8th March 2022

Suddenly the war in Ukraine is revealing anew our (in the UK and across the world) dependency in gas and oil and our lack of self reliance in the supply of energy. This week the IPCC issued its most recent support on the world’s position vis a vis the climate crisis and things are not looking good. We are as individuals, companies and governments are not reducing our carbon emissions at anything like the rate needed to safeguard a comfortable future, nor are we doing enough to adapt to those dangers of climate change that are already locked in by our current lifestyles. Surly this is the time to be urgently and radically addressing our production and consumption of carbon emitting energy.

The Need for Fossil Fuel Divestment

Oil and coal both began their existence about 300 million years ago as dead plant materials or marine life. When conditions allowed for anaerobic decay, the first stage of formation began. Later after another 200 millions of years of compression by overlying layers of debris, and exposure to high temperature found at geological depths, the decaying material slowly formed either seams of coal, or reservoirs of oil and/or gas. 

The earliest records of coal being mined and burnt date back to about 200BCE when it was being traded in China as a fuel. In the UK coal was mined and used by the Romans to heat water for their baths as well as for smelting metal.  In the mediaeval period the burning of coal in London was prohibited because of the issues of pollution. It was in the 1700s that the demand for coal rapidly increased as part of the industrial revolution – and has continued to increase across the world. Peak coal production probably  occurred in 2013, when 8 billion tonnes was demanded. Since then global demand has been declining but that is not to gainsay that in some countries demand for coal is still rising. 

The use of oil in the form of asphalt and pitch has been in use for at least 4000 years whilst the refining of crude oil to create, initially, lubricating oil, dates back to 1848. Since then the processing of oil has led to the creation of all sorts of materials – plastics, paints, fabrics, lipstick and nail varnish, weed killers and fertilisers – as well as its use a fuel for heating and for powering all manner of vehicles. Demand for oil has been even greater than that for coal. Peak oil is widely considered to be  imminent but as the date can only be seen in hindsight, its actual date is not yet clear. World oil production was 88.4  million barrels a day in 2020 and 99.5 in 2019.

Coal, oil and gas are major emitters of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are the root cause of the climate crisis. To contain the adverse affects of the crisis, these emissions need to be reduced to a net zero level by 2050. The International Energy Agency produced in  2021 a report –  Net Zero by 2050: a Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector – outlining the means by which such a target can be achieved. These include an end, as of 2021, to any further investment in new fossil fuel projects, no further sales of new internal combustion engine cars after 2035, and a net zero emissions global electricity sector by 2040.  By 2050 fossil fuel use would be solely in goods where the carbon produced can be embodied, such as recyclable plastics, and in a limited number of areas where  carbon emissions can be captured and where there is no other alternative resource.  (https://www.iea.org/news/pathway-to-critical-and-formidable-goal-of-net-zero-emissions-by-2050-is-narrow-but-brings-huge-benefits) The IEA was clearing stating that no new oil and natural gas fields were needed in this net zero pathway – all necessary supplies of fossil fuels can be met from existing extraction sites.

The imperative is to invest in alternative renewable energies, materials and technologies. Many Christians, individuals and organisations, are doing this as part of their commitment to the care of God’s creation. In the run up to COP26 37 faith institutions in Britain affirmed their decision to divest from fossil fuels investments – ie that they would withdraw from any investments that supported fossil fuels and would maintain that position thereafter. This groups included the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland; the Central Finance Board of the Methodist Church; the Presbyterian Church of Wales; the Presbyterian Church in Ireland; 15 Catholic dioceses in the UK and Ireland, including the Archdioceses of Glasgow, St Andrews & Edinburgh, Birmingham and Southwark; and from the Church of England, the Dioceses of Truro and Sodor & Man. This latter group has since been joined by the dioceses of Bristol, Oxford, Norwich and Durham. (https://brightnow.org.uk/news/global-faith-divestment-announcement-cop26/)

Bright Now, part of Operation Noah, campaigns on the issue of fossil fuel divestment and actively  encourages all parishes and churches to get involved in this campaign, which has at its heart the care of God’s creation. In the parish where I live, Parish funds are (in common with most Anglican churches) invested with CCLA Investment Management Limited, part of The CBF Church of England investment Fund – and as of July 2020, CCLA no longer holds any fossil fuel investments. However my local diocese, The Diocese of Southwark, which holds money on behalf of its parishes, has approximately £2.7 million in fossil fuel investments. This is the largest such holding pertaining to any of the Anglican Dioceses. 

As individuals we may feel we have no fossil fuel investments but (as with my church connections) it is highly likely that we do, even if only indirectly. Many of the companies who supply us with mortgages, insurance, pensions etc also hold investments in fossil fuels. The campaign group, Make My Money Matter, contends that swopping our pensions to a green provider is the most powerful thing we can do to reduce carbon emissions – UK pension funds invest £2.6 trillion on our behalf! (https://makemymoneymatter.co.uk/21x/) It is important that we as consumers ask how our money is being used when we hand it over to the care of others. Our money should be being used to create a better, kinder, just and peaceful world. 

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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