Oslo has joined the dozens of cities pledging to divest their holdings in the fossil fuel industry

Oslo in the snow. Image: AFP/Getty.

Two years ago, the online advocacy group 350.org launched a campaign to persuade investors to move their money away from the fossil fuel industry. By 2014, according to a study by the University of Oxford, it was the fastest growing divestment movement in history – and last month, Oslo became the first capital city to pledge to divest from coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels.

The movement has been gathering pace through Europe, America and Australasia, bringing together bodies as diverse as the Church of Sweden and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the British Medical Association and Stanford University. It has received the backing of the UN and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who oversaw similar tactics help bring Apartheid in South Africa to an end. Now more than forty cities across the world have committed to divestment.

The campaign is premised upon the fact that there are five times more carbon in known reserves than the world is permitted to burn, if warming is to stabilise at 2C above pre-industrial levels, a figure broadly taken as the safe upper limit. The argument for divesting is two-fold. Firstly, says 350's founder Bill McKibben, if it is morally wrong to wreck the planet, then it is wrong to profit from it, too.

It is not an aphorism that is universally accepted, but there is also an economic incentive. The stock prices of the fossil fuel companies rest upon these as yet untapped reserves; and if the two degree figure becomes legally binding, then they risk becoming stranded assets. It is this that is persuading bodies such as HSBC, the International Energy Agency and the World Bank, not usually known for their progressive stance on climate change, to take notice.

In 2013, Seattle became the first city to commit to divesting its cash pool, earning itself a nomination for RTCC's Green City of the Year. Not wanting to have their liberal credentials overshadowed, a swathe of other cities down the West Coast followed suit: Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, Santa Monica.

From there the movement spread across the US – there are nine cities in Massachusetts alone – and then to Europe and Australia. In March, the London Assembly passed a motion calling on the Mayor to divest the Greater London Authority's Group Investment Syndicate, and to ask the same of the London Pension Fund Authority. Only the three Conservatives members present voted against.

Each city that topples gathers international headlines: “Sweden's first!” “New Zealand's first!” and so on. Yet whilst some cities are making good on their commitments – Örebro, Sweden, divested two-thirds of its fossil fuel investments in the first three months – others are struggling to implement their pledges. Two years on, with a new mayor in office, Seattle is yet to ratify the scheme to divest its pension plan. San Francisco, meanwhile, has just voted to invest $100m in environmentally friendly funds, but is still a long way from divesting the $540m that it holds in fossil fuel companies.

The London motion, filed by Green Party Assembly member Jenny Jones, now awaits Boris Johnson's response. Whilst the London Pension Fund Authority are technically separate from the Assembly, Johnson appoints the chair and half of the board, and so is in a strong position to push the motion through.

“The stigmatisation process... poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies"

Were London to divest, it would be the campaign's biggest coup yet. Chelsea Edwards, a campaigner with Divest London, believes that, with the motion supported by all parties except the Conservatives, divestment could play a big role in the 2016 mayoral elections. In the meantime she is refusing to give up on Johnson. “One of the things he came into office with was saying that he was going to reduce carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2025, and if we want to do that, we need to stop paying for them,” she says. “We're going to carry on trying to hold him to that.”

The London Assembly has given Johnson a scorecard of 4.6 out of 10 in his pursuit of his climate change adaption and mitigation targets; campaigners are hoping that the mayor will use the vote as an opportunity to redress the balance.

Yet a statement from City Hall has said that, whilst the Mayor takes climate change mitigation “extremely seriously,” a sudden divestment of pension funds would be irresponsible. “It would cause huge disruption to the world economy, let alone the retirement plans for millions of UK residents,” said a spokesperson.

And yet, as with other divestment campaigns, its power rests as much in making a pariah of the industry as it does in withdrawing funds. The University of Oxford report, authored by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, recognises this. “The outcome of the stigmatisation process, which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has now triggered,” it writes, “poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain. Any direct impacts pale in comparison.”

London's Pension Fund Authority has just 2 per cent of its money in fossil fuels, whilst Oslo's divestment of coal amounts to just 40m krone (£3.3m), hardly enough to make Rio Tinto tremble. But Oslo's finance commissioner Eirik Lae Solberg, believes it sends an important message, and is in keeping with Oslo's target of being carbon neutral by 2050. “It is natural that our efforts to reduce Oslo’s carbon footprint are reflected in our pension fund’s investment strategy,” he says.

Despite that, there are no current plans for further divestment from other fossil fuels. “Oslo’s responsibility to contribute to sustainable development must be balanced by achieving return on investment to secure the pensions of our current and former employees,” he says. “We hope that we in the future can place an even greater share of our investments in funds with a renewable profile.”

For all that, and despite the small sums currently involved, the divestment campaign does seem to be stepping beyond the symbolic. The Bank of England has recognised climate risk as a potential danger for investors, and London-based Carbon Tracker, a group that helps pension companies to consider the potential impacts of their fossil fuel investments, supports the London Assembly vote.

A year ago, the world’s biggest fund manager, Blackrock, and FTSE launched a set of new fossil-free indices in what the Financial Times described as “a sign that a global campaign against fossil fuels is entering the financial mainstream”. Now the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global, the world's largest sovereign wealth fund, has divested from coal and is considering full divestment – a move which could catalyse the debate as to the economic risks with the fossil fuel sector.

Melanie Mattauch, Europe Communications Coordinator at 350, believes that the movement will continue to build. “There are campaigns popping up in more and more places around the globe,” she says. “I think we will see the first capital pledging to divest from coal, oil and gas very soon.”


Wild boar are moving back to Genoa, and not everyone is pleased

A wild boar, c1933. Image: Getty.

Crossing the Ponte Gerolamo Serra in the Italian city of Genoa, I spotted a small crowd clustered by the river wall. I approached, intrigued, and peered over the wall to discover the subject of their delight: a sounder of eight wild boars – the adults sheltering from the heat in the undergrowth, while the juveniles foraged among the foliage that grows in the river bed during the dry summer months.

In any other city, such a sight might have been surprising. But in Italy, and particularly in the region of Liguria, where Genoa is located, the population of wild boars has been increasing at such a rapid rate that these incidents are now common. Across the country, it’s estimated that the population has risen from 600,000 to 1m over the past decade.

But while wild boars may look comically out of place trotting about the city, it’s actually a natural result of the way people have migrated – and the wars they have fought – over the course of recent history.

Making a comeback

A species native to Europe, the wild boar (or “cinghiale”, in Italian) largely disappeared from its historical territories during the 18th and 19th centuries. Their decline was widely attributed to the combined effects of habitat change, competition for space and resources and, of course, hunting.

Wild boars were a prized quarry, revered for their ferocity – and the danger involved in pursuing them. According to local folklore from the region of Liguria, the last truly wild boar was hunted and killed in 1814, in the province of Savona.

After an absence of more than a century, wild boar began to return to Liguria, and to the neighbouring region of Piedmont. A further influx occurred during World War I, when it’s believed that military activities in the south-east of France forced parts of the population back into Italy over the Alps.

Although hunting fraternities were quick to augment this fledgling population with wild boars transported from elsewhere, the return of the species was primarily due to natural causes. From the 1950s onwards, traditional agricultural practices were abandoned as more and more people moved from rural towns into the cities. This meant that large areas of formerly cultivated terraces and pastures were rapidly overgrown, fast becoming dense secondary woodlands.

A city gone wild

This spontaneous “rewilding” has become a controversial issue in the region. Many conservationists and environmental organisations consider the region’s return to a “wild state” a success. But others believe that the encroaching wilderness signals a loss of traditional woodland knowledge and a reduction of biodiversity, associated with the pastures and meadows.

The province of Genoa is among the areas most densely populated by wild boar in Italy, with an estimated 25 boar per 10km². Rewilding processes have brought woodlands to the city limits, blurring the boundary between rural and urban areas. The species has expanded beyond the hinterlands, colonising highly urbanised, densely populated city spaces in Genoa, drawn by the abundance of food waste created by humans.

In 2009, the infamous boar Pierino made his home at Righi, on the outskirts of Genoa, where he was routinely fed with focaccia by enthusiasts. Today, a family of wild boar call the Albergo dei Poveri – a historical hostel for the Genoese poor in the city centre – their home.

But while their antics are often recorded and shared with glee on social media, the threats posed by the presence of wild animals has become a preoccupation for the city’s municipal administration.

Boorish behaviour

Wild boar have been involved in a number of traffic accidents, and have proven to be particularly dangerous when with their young, attacking dogs and even people. The city council in Genoa has put forward many proposals to reduce the number of animals in the city, ranging from forced removals, to sterilisation, increased attention to waste disposal and approved hunts. About 90 wild boar were reportedly culled in 2018.

Needless to say, each of these measures has been hotly debated. Animal advocacy groups staunchly oppose the proposals, and sometimes obstruct the authorities’ attempts to take action, often sending patrols to care for the animals, and even give them names. But other residents are displeased with the animals’ presence in the city, and have consulted with the council on how to address the problems that they cause.

And so Genoa continues to grapple with thorny issues surrounding the presence of wild boar in the city, with the city authorities seeking to resolve a polemical issue that embroils the lives of animals and humans alike. So far, a collective, coherent and communally agreeable strategy has proven evasive; one that considers the need for public safety, hygiene and health with the ethical responsibilities towards to wild boar themselves.

Meanwhile, the animals themselves continue to lounge and forage beneath the Ponte Gerolamo Serra and elsewhere, bringing a little of the wilderness into the city.

The Conversation

Robert Hearn, Assistant Professor in Human Geography, University of Nottingham.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.