Oxfordshire LGPS, Fiddling While the Earth Burns – Video

On Thursday 24th September we took our campaign to Oxfordshire County Hall. We alerted the council workers, many of whom are members of the Local Government Pension Scheme, to the fact that their pensions had over £50m directly invested in fossil fuels and explained how the committee was fiddling and stalling whilst they invested in the industry directly responsible for climate change.

Zoe Broughton has created a short video from the action.

How did we prepare for the pension fund committee meeting in June (2015)?

At this meeting, the Oxfordshire Pension Fund Committee received our petition on divestment, signed by 1200 of their electorate. Fossil Free Oxfordshire was busy in the run-up to this important meeting, determined to make the most of the opportunity to influence the discussion and aware that there may be limited opportunities to raise the issues again unless we were proactive with our arguments and demands.

This was the fourth time Fossil Free Oxfordshire had addressed an Oxfordshire County Council body (having previously addressed meetings of the Pension Fund Committee, the Cabinet and Full Council), but this was the first time councillors and officers got substantially engaged in a meaningful and animated debate. Not a win, but it definitely felt like progress.

These are some of the things that happened in the run up to the meeting:

  • LGPS members asked to write to the committee Chair

We began to encourage pension scheme members to email Cllr Lilly, Chair of the Pension Fund Committee using this online tool to let him know they would prefer their pension fund was not invested in risky, dangerous fossil fuel companies (if you are a scheme member, you are invited to use it now 🙂 ). Cllr Bob Price, leader of Oxford City Council was one of the first signatories.

  • Constituents asked to write to Councillors on the Pension Fund Committee

A number of people contacted committee members in advance of the meeting, showing that their constituents supported the call for divestment.

  • Trades Unions asked to support divestment

Oxfordshire retired members unanimously passed a motion calling on the council to divest the pension fund from fossil fuels. Oxfordshire Trades Council passed a motion on the eve of the Pension Fund Committee meeting, which effectively recommended divestment.

  • We were invited to address the Committee again

Several of us have now had practice at writing speeches that will have impact and stay within the few minutes allowed by Council Committees (they are very strict on timing). This time Pete, who is an LGPS member and County Council employee, delivered plea for divestment from the heart, which completely engaged the councillors. They were clearly listening!

  • We engaged with the Council’s analysis of the issue

The County Council’s Chief Finance Officer prepared this paper for the committee, to inform their discussion of “Corporate governance and socially responsible investment,” that followed the item on our petition. Agenda papers are published a week before the meetings, so we rushed to respond to it ahead of the meeting, in an email to the CFO and all the committee members – the subject of our next blog.

Now we have to keep the pressure up. We have lots of ideas about how we can do that, but we’re a small team and we could do with some more people to get involved in different ways – big or small. Do get in touch if you could help out.

*** You can read what happened at the meeting here.

What happened at the County’s Pension Fund Committe meeting

We have been campaigning, locally and globally, for divestment from fossil fuels over the last 2 years. The effects of this finally became visible at the meeting of Oxfordshire County Council Pension Fund Committee on Friday 5th June 2015. The debate during the meeting hinted that we may be at a turning point in our engagement with the Council, so now is the time to ramp up the pressure.

Following our petition hand-in of over 1200 signatures in February, we pushed for the issue of divestment to be considered by the Pension Fund Committee, and accordingly the agenda for this meeting included a 5 minute address (you can read the text of it here) by Peter Wallis, who is a member of the campaign team, and a subsequent item on “Corporate Governance and Socially Responsible Investment,” based on a paper from the County Council’s Chief Finance Officer, Lorna Baxter.

Peter Wallis outside County Hall

Peter Wallis outside County Hall

Peter Wallis, who works for the County Council and is a Local Government Pension Scheme member, spoke with great presence and conviction. He welcomed the Chief Finance Officer’s assertion that the principal concern of the Committee is for the scheme members’ best interests. He pointed out that these interests include both ensuring the fund can pay members’ pensions when on retirement, and having a secure and resilient world to retire into and pass on to future generations. He argued powerfully that neither of these interests is served by investing in financially risky and environmentally dangerous fossil fuels. He drew the committee’s attention to a recent article in the Telegraph which begins

“The political noose is tightening on the global fossil fuel industry. It is a fair bet that world leaders will agree this year to impose a draconian “tax” on carbon emissions that entirely changes the financial calculus for coal, oil, and gas, and may ultimately devalue much of their asset base to zero.”

Pete’s address was followed by questions from the Councillors, which questioned not the need for moving away from burning fossil fuels, but what the necessary timescale was for change. Cllr Lovatt said he had always believed that the internal combustion engine would go the way of steam and Cllr Langridge, while stressing that we were still dependent now on fossil fuels, asked how quickly we need to change.

The Committee’s next discussion of the principles governing their investment decisions was informed by a report from the Chief Finance Officer. We had responded to this before the meeting. (You can see and overview of the main issues below). The debate went on for more than twice the time allocated on the agenda and raised a huge range of questions, aired some important arguments and dispelled some myths.  Councillors across the political spectrum represented on the committee spoke in favour of strengthened conversations with fund managers on “the part they are playing in this important dialogue” and of the importance of consultation with scheme members and employers on investment policy.

This was the fourth time Fossil Free Oxfordshire had addressed an Oxfordshire County Council body (having previously addressed meetings of the Pension Fund Committee, the Cabinet and Full Council), but the first time councillors and officers got substantially engaged in a meaningful and animated debate. Although there was no immediate commitment to blanket divestment, they do appear to recognise the risks of ill adapted business models and say they are committed to include or exclude investments in light of a comprehensive risk assessment completed in line with Carbon Tracker’s ambitious Blueprint Checklist. There was a strong call from Councillors to engage urgently with the Investment Managers, some of whom have not yet been asked these sorts of questions. For the first time we came away with the sense that, on the whole, the Committee is grasping the magnitude and seriousness of the issue. It’s not a clear-cut win, but we think it’s a significant shift.

Although the change in the tone of the discussion was encouraging, the way these meetings are set up precludes any real dialogue. We’d have preferred an opportunity for a more participative form of engagement. The only input we were allowed was to answer (at the discretion of the Chair) questions posed in response to the address. We could have contributed fruitfully to the discussion had we been given a seat at the table rather than an observer role. We will be proposing ways in which LGPS members can participate in this important debate.

What next? Well about ten days ago we launched an online letter-writing tool (with leaflets available too) for Oxfordshire LGPS members to tell the Pension Fund Committee what THEY think about divestment. Please go to the online tool if you are an LGPS member. At Friday’s meeting, Cllr Lilly, who chairs the Committee, announced that he had had 56 letters so far, from a membership of 44,000. Watch this space!

We have many other ideas for the way forward. Please contact us at fossilfreeoxon@gmail.com if you’d like to support the campaign. We’re always open to new members and can use any offer of support, even if you only have a small amount of time to spare.

Oxfordshire County Council Cabinet Receive Petition from Fossil Free Oxfordshire Campaign

Petition hand in

Al Chisholm, of the Fossil Free Oxfordshire campaign, presenting Ian Hudspeth, leader of the County Council, with the petition

The Fossil Free Oxfordshire campaign presented a petition of over 1200 signatures to the Oxfordshire County Council Cabinet, at their meeting on Tuesday February 24th at 2pm.

The petition calls on the Council to:
​1. Immediately freeze any new investments in fossil fuels;
2. Within 5 years, divest from all direct ownership, and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds.

Fossil Free Oxfordshire is part of a global movement highlighting the urgent need to stop investing in companies that continue to exploit and explore for new fossil fuel reserves which the planet cannot afford to burn.

Proven fossil fuel reserves contain four times the world’s remaining ‘carbon budget’ – that is the amount of carbon that can ever be released into the atmosphere, if the world is to remain within safe climate limits. This means the majority of reserves on which fossil fuel company assets depend can never be burned and will become “stranded assets”.

Alan Allport

Alan addressing the cabinet

Prof Alan Allport spoke about the petition at the Cabinet meeting. He quoted Professor Lord Stern and his colleagues: “The scale of this carbon budget deficit poses a major risk to investors. They need to understand that 60 – 80% of coal, oil and gas reserves of listed firms are unburnable.” Prof Allport appealed to the Cabinet: “Please don’t sleepwalk into this danger”.

Al Chisholm of Fossil Free Oxfordshire said “Oxford City Council has taken a strong lead by including fossil fuel companies amongst the exclusions in its ethical investment policy. Now we want Oxfordshire County Council to move nearly £50 million away from fossil fuel companies and put it into investments that are less financially risky and better for the planet”.

On February 14th student, county and church campaigners in Oxford joined hundreds of events in 48 countries for Global Divestment Day to put pressure on organisations to divest from oil, coal and gas industries and reinvest in clean technology.

The Fossil Free campaign says there is an ethical case for divestment, and over the last two years, over 180 universities, faith groups and pension funds worldwide, representing over £30 billion in assets, have committed to divest. The fossil fuel divestment movement is the fastest growing divestment campaign in history with over 500 active divestment campaigns underway at universities, cities, churches, banks, and other institutions.

Petition hand in2

Petition hand in

In 2014, Oxford City Council and Oxford Diocese made history as the first UK institutions of their kinds to make divestment commitments. The initiative is part of the Fossil Free campaign.

Danielle Paffard, UK divestment campaigner at 350.org, said: “The UK divestment movement is already making a huge impact and Oxford is leading the way. In just two years, this campaign has grown from a few universities to hundreds of institutions around the world.

So what happened at the County Council?

On Tuesday 1st July 2014 the Green Party put a motion to the full meeting of Oxfordshire County Council, calling on the council to consider divesting from fossil fuels.

Outside the council:

FFCountyCouncillors arriving at County Hall were greeted by a group of 12 fossil free protesters, including city councillors from Labour and the Green Party, to encourage them to vote for the motion. We held banners and placards, talked to the local press and were treated to the views of some of the councillors on their way into the meeting. The winner of the most unedifying comment: “Global warming? Great – get your bikinis on ladies”!!

Fossil Free Oxfordshire was granted a 5 minute public address to the Council early in the meeting and before the motions were heard. Al set out the arguments – environmental and economic – for divestment and reminded the councillors that this was an opportunity to set out on a truly ground-breaking path to protect their employees’ pensions as well as much of what we hold dear about our way of life.

The motion is being discussed:

The motion itself was heard in the afternoon. It was proposed by David Williams and seconded by Sam Coates, both Green Party Councillors. In the following discussion the Chair of the Pensions Fund Committee, Councillor Stewart Lilly (Conservative), argued that the Council itself does not own the assets and cannot influence their investment. Our understanding is that, while the council isn’t in a position to demand anything of the pension fund, is it certainly able to make suggestions. Otherwise, we’re not quite sure what is the role of the council’s Pension Fund Committee. In any case, Cllr Williams pointed out that his motion doesn’t *demand*anything from the pension fund, but rather brings the undesirability of investing in fossil fuels to the trustees’ attention, and calls on the fund to look into this issue.

Councillors John Tanner (Labour) and Jean Fooks (Liberal Democrat) both spoke in favour of divestment in principle and its future consideration, but not in favour of this motion. John Tanner cited support from Oxford City Council and the trades unions.

Pension funds??

It is worth noting here, that though pension funds managers have a fiduciary duty to maximise profits from their investments (or more specifically, they are “required to balance returns against risk. “), this financial duty is only part of the story. A recent report by the Law Commission clarifies what is apparently a rather confusing piece of legislation, and states that trustees should consider environmental, social and governance factors where they are financially material.

(You can fund the full, 272-pages long, report here, or the executive summary here, where the relevant part is the appendix, starting on page 19)

The vote:

When it came to the vote, the motion was heavily defeated, with four votes for (two LibDems and two Green councillors), 40 against and 9 abstentions. But these numbers belie a growing level of understanding of, and support for, the notion of divestment: some of those who voted against or abstained because they were unhappy with details of the motion’s wording have openly pledged support for the principle of divesting from fossil fuels (we are currently trying to get information about what exactly they were unhappy with).

This is certainly not the last the County Council will hear about fossil fuel divestment – we’re just getting going!

(But don’t just take our word for it – check out this article from the Telegraph – an unexpected campaign ally! – which backs up some of our arguments. The Divestment campaign is really going mainstream!)

 

Ask your County Councillor to support divestment

This Tuesday, July 1st, the County Council will be discussing a motion submitted by Green Party Councillor David Williams. This is very exciting since – as far as we know – it is the first time a local authority in the UK is discussing a motion to divest from fossil fuels.

And we want to make sure it gets as much support as it can!

Can you contact your councillor to let her or him know that you would like them to support the motion?

To find out who your councillor is and how to contact them, go to – https://www.writetothem.com/ – or check the County Council website, if you know which ward you are in.

What to write?

One option is a very simple note, just asking them to support it. Something such as:

A motion to divest Oxfordshire County Council of fossil fuels has been proposed (number 18 on the agenda), and I would urge you to support it. It sends a clear message that Oxfordshire is ready to think about its citizens future and that we must support the move towards the clean energy revolution we so urgently need.

You can also go into the details of why it is important to divest. This is one way of putting it:

There are two compelling reasons for divestment.

The first is about the risk of stranded assets:

Proven fossil fuel reserves contain already five times the amount of carbon that can be released into the atmosphere without triggering potentially catastrophic (> 2 degrees C) global warming.

While those fossil fuel reserves are still below ground physically, they are already above ground economically, in the form of the market valuation of the major fossil fuel companies that control them. However, if those reserves cannot safely be used there is an inevitable ‘carbon bubble’ waiting to burst. (If they are used, an even more dangerous future awaits us, in which stock exchanges are unlikely to continue to function.) Either way, they are toxic assets, which the County Council should rapidly dispose of, before global investors belatedly recognise their inflated valuation.

The second is about moral responsibility:

The continued and unabated burning of fossil fuels risks the entire future of civilisation. If it is wrong to continue in this way, it is wrong too to seek to profit from doing so.

What else can I do?

Banner cropped1) Sign the petition if you haven’t done so yet, and get all your friends and neighbours to do the same!

2) Join us for half an hour outside the County Council at 9.30am on Tuesday 1st July. As the Councillors arrive, they will see us with banners and placards, reminding them to vote the right way! County hall is at OX1 1ND on New Road.