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.”


“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  

For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.