Why is the engagement with oil giants wrong?

The Church of Ireland acknowledges that a transition to a low carbon economy is essential to help mitigate global warming. Its policy on climate change is based around collaborative engagement with fossil fuel companies. This means that through its membership of bodies such as Church Investors Group and the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, the church can engage with fossil fuel companies with the aim of encouraging them to reduce exploration, production and emissions from fossil fuels.

The problem is, engagement is not working.

Here is why,

1. Years of experience shows engagement is not working.
2. We need rapid change, not a gradual shift.
3. Investing in fossil fuels is unethical.

Let’s take each of these arguments in turn.

1. Experience shows engagement does not work.

Jonathan Poritt is an elder statesman of the environmental movement. Twenty years ago he advocated engagement with the biggest oil companies: BP and Shell, and worked tirelessly with them on sustainability projects. Last year, however, he came to the conclusion that engagement is futile. In an interview with the Guardian he said this,

“We came to the conclusion that it was impossible for today’s oil and gas majors to adapt in a timely and intelligent way to the imperative of radical decarbonisation. We felt we had no option but to end our long-standing partnerships with both Shell and BP.”

He said that the reformers in the big oil companies had been ousted by ‘hydrocarbon supremacists’. The years of engagement had come to nothing.

Reviewing the annual report of the Church Investors Group also yields little evidence of success. No company has pledged to reduce fossil fuel output. There was a successful resolution passed at the AGMs of both BP and Shell, the ‘Strategic resilience for 2035 and beyond’ resolution means these companies will disclose information on emissions and low carbon research. But let’s be clear, simply publishing information does not limit exploration, reduce output or emissions, or even increase research into renewable energy. In recent years BP has significantly reduced how much it spends on low carbon research. Increased disclosure is simply a stalling tactic by the fossil fuel giants.

If Jonathan Poritt sees engagement as futile after 20 years, then churches should wake up to the fact it does not work. Big oil companies are playing a long requiem and engagement simply provides the score for them to play from.


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