NEW WRITER

Local action for global change: Divest East Sussex

Group of protesters holding Great Thunberg masks in front of their faces.
Supporters of Divest East Sussex holding a ‘Thunberg-in’ outside County Hall in Lewes in February 2020. Photo credit: Katie Vandyck

Money talks in the boardroom. That’s why I and countless thousands of others across the country have been pressurising council pension fund managers to pull their investments from companies mining and drilling for fossil fuels in order to persuade them to act on the climate emergency the planet faces. And despite a lot of foot-dragging, we’re winning. Care to join us?

Divest East Sussex is a county-wide campaign aiming to get East Sussex County Council (ESCC) to stop investing local people’s pensions in giant oil and gas companies like Exxon and BP. I joined four years ago to fight climate change in Lewes and surrounding areas, as well as globally.

Climate change effects

Almost all climate scientists agree that CO2 emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels are driving climate change.

It affects countries more vulnerable than ours, causing devastation, loss of lives and livelihoods at an alarming rate – as well as damaging the habitats of other lifeforms on the planet. Slow onset disasters are happening too: desertification in sub-Saharan Africa; glacial melt in parts of Latin America; and sea-level rise affecting small island states and low-lying countries like Bangladesh. In the Caribbean and the Philippines, the impact of typhoons and hurricanes has increased massively, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake.

We’ve seen changing weather patterns here in Sussex too. They include longer dry periods, followed by intensive rainy periods and flooding. Sea-level rise would devastate coastal communities like Seaford, Newhaven, Lewes and the villages of the lower Ouse valley. According to a 2014 report by The Coastal Futures Groups, the effects of climate change could include rapid erosion of the coastline and riverbanks, regular flooding, dramatic changes to the landscape and ecology of the valley, disruption of food and water supplies, as well as social and economic upheaval.

Pension funds and fossil fuels

In corporate boardrooms, moral arguments carry little weight. Instead, money talks. Pension funds are among the UK’s biggest investors with massive holdings in fossil fuel companies. But pension beneficiaries – most employees – are probably unaware how their savings are being invested, allowing investment companies to put profit before societal and planetary well-being. Yet there is evidence that ethical investments perform as well as, if not better, than all-encompassing investments.

As of September 2020, the East Sussex Pension Fund held a staggering £134.6m in fossil fuel company investments, providing retirement benefits for a variety of local, public sector and educational employees, as well as ESCC workers. The current total is probably about £70m given recent commitments to reduce exposure, but this figure isn’t published anywhere.

Yet there are plenty of other investments that would enable the fund to meet its financial obligations while fossil fuels add risk because, as the transition to renewables increases, fossil fuel infrastructures risk becoming stranded assets: effectively worthless.

ESCC’s Pension Committee argues that engaging with fossil fuel companies is the best way to influence them. But while investment continues, big fossil fuel companies seem unlikely to curtail their operations.

Despite that, in October 2019 East Sussex County Council declared a climate emergency, but during the same meeting, councillors refused to phase out fossil fuel holdings. However, after concerted campaigning from Divest East Sussex, in November the Pension Committee decided to reduce its exposure to passive equity funds to be better aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement – a real success story.

Local divestment action

On a positive note, the massive increase in support from local people for the divestment campaign over the last three years has boosted the local campaign hugely. From a small group who would regularly raise questions at the council meetings, questioning the Pension Committee chair about the fund’s investments, we now regularly mobilise hundreds across the county. We lobby councillors, Pension Committee members and Brighton & Hove City Council – whose pensions are managed by East Sussex County Council, despite Brighton & Hove’s lack of representation on the Pension Committee.

We are building pressure from the community upwards, in the hope and belief that the council can be forced to put the future and well-being both of their pension holders and of their children and grandchildren ahead of pure profit.

Despite lockdown, we continue to engage creatively with the council. Local people have taken direct action, from sending councillors divestment greetings cards, to holding an online ‘Chicken-In’, where we asked the current chair of the Pension Committee not to let his fossil fuel chickens come home to roost.

The tanker turns

Change is in the wind. District councils in Lewes, Eastbourne, Peacehaven, Rother, Wealden, Hastings, and Brighton & Hove, have declared a climate emergency, and many are committed to progressing towards carbon reduction targets by 2030. And the East Sussex Pension Committee’s move towards divestment shows that pressure works.

2021 is a crucial year for the climate, as we emerge from Covid-19 and world leaders meet in Glasgow for the most important climate summit since Paris. We are urging ESCC to become part of the solution by making a public commitment to divest from fossil fuels – something already done by over 1,309 institutions globally, from the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund to Waltham Forest and Southwark councils.

With enough pressure from local people, we might just be able to do it.

Want to get involved? Contact the campaign at divesteastsussex@gmail.com. You can keep in touch with the campaign via the Divest East Sussex website, and you can follow Divest East Sussex on Facebook and Twitter.

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