Disinvesting in firms that don’t curb emissions shows the way forward for climate campaigners

The recent extreme flooding in the United Kingdom and Ireland has highlighted the devastating effect our changing climate can have; but if we do not take action fast, future generations will experience weather shocks on a far greater scale. Our planet is warming to a catastrophic extent, and the human race must step up.

The divestment campaign — which originated in the United States and is now making its way across the Atlantic — is one shining example of what is needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Transforming our economic system to one based on low-carbon production and consumption can create inclusive sustainable development and reduce inequality. To achieve a just transition to a low-carbon economy, it is crucial that we invest in social protection, enhance workers’ skills for redeployment in a low-carbon economy, and promote access to sustainable development for all.

The premise of the divestment campaign is simple: non-profit organisations must move their investments away from fossil fuels, reducing the power and influence this industry has on society.

The reality of climate change may be the catalyst for even more ambitious action.

Role of young people

We already have the scientific knowledge available to us. Among members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations climate panel, there is a 97 per cent consensus that humans are causing global warming. They know that the majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground.

The active role of young people is worth noting. As with the anti-apartheid campaign in the 1980s, students today are taking action that can determine their futures — and the futures of generations to come — for the better. They are showing the world that, once again, a transformation in how we grow our economies is essential. This is how intergenerational equity can be achieved: promoting a new investment model that responds to the risks posed by climate change. By avoiding investment in high-carbon assets that become obsolete, and by prioritising sustainable alternatives, we build capacity and resilience, particularly for more vulnerable people — while lowering carbon emissions.

We do not have much time. Global investment in clean technologies is now at about $300bn a year, but according to the International Energy Agency, this would need to reach $1tn by 2030 to keep within a 2ºC warmer world, the threshold above which climate change would become catastrophic.

Meanwhile, the temptation to invest in coal, oil and gas is heightened by countries’ fossil fuel subsidies that, worldwide, amount to $1.9tn a year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Such subsidies enable the fossil fuel industry to perpetuate the notion that renewable energy is more expensive. Of course, in withdrawing any fossil fuel subsidies, absolute consideration has to be given to accessing energy for the poorest, therefore investment has to be made in sustainable energy alternatives.

Government leaders have an important role to play, and with their electorate behind them, they will be far more willing to act. (Mary Robinson, a former President of Ireland, is founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation — Climate Justice.)© Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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