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Countdown to Glasgow: This is why climate activists are taking on big banks

·4-min read
‘A tiger won’t change its stripes, but you can certainly stop feeding it’ (Getty Images)
‘A tiger won’t change its stripes, but you can certainly stop feeding it’ (Getty Images)

What a difference a year can make – 2020 began with the climate crisis in the headlines, as wildfires ravaged Australia. But our minds, newspapers and governments have been occupied ever since by the deadly pandemic raging across the globe. As the first Covid wave swelled, the wave of popular mobilisations for climate action – from the youth strikes to Extinction Rebellion – dissipated.

Unfortunately, climate breakdown continues its march, impervious to the interconnected crises enveloping us – the planetary clock won’t stop ticking. And we know who is most to blame: the fossil fuel giants pumping out oil, gas and coal, and the governments propping them up.

Even the conservative-minded International Energy Agency, in its recent net-zero 2050 scenario, recognised that, “there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway, and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required”. To quote its pithy summary, “net zero means a huge decline in the use of fossil fuels.”

Needless to say, it seems Big Oil has its fingers in its ears. While the likes of BP, Shell and Total have all published climate plans, all intend to keep dedicating the overwhelming majority of their investments (and profits) to oil and, increasingly, gas production. From Total’s East African Crude Oil Pipeline to the EastMed pipeline, oil and gas majors are doubling down on climate-destroying projects, which often involve devastating impacts for local (often Indigenous) communities, and potentially violate human rights.

And that’s not to mention the dirtiest fossil fuel: coal, with new projects still being undertaken. Adani’s Carmichael mega-mine in Australia, which would allegedly violate Indigenous sovereignty and consume and pollute precious water supplies, is a case in point.

Faced with a sustained assault from activists, from cultural boycotts like the youth-led campaign for the Science Museum to drop Shell, to campaigns against state subsidies, to legal battles, oil, gas and coal companies have their backs against the wall. But a major pillar of support is propping them up: finance.

Whether it’s investors who back their climate strategies (as they duly did at Shell and Total’s Annual General Meetings last month) to insurers and banks who mitigate the risks and provide the capital for projects, there would be no fossil fuel extraction without the backing of financial institutions.

That’s why climate activists have increasingly turned to targeting financiers themselves, as one of us did by founding a new NGO, Reclaim Finance. A tiger won’t change its stripes, but you can certainly stop feeding it.

Unfortunately, greenwashing is never far away. The past year has seen an explosion in “green finance” commitments, with a dizzying number of new “net zero” initiatives announced. These commitments typically involve a lot of media fanfare – but take a closer look and you’ll probably find 30-year timescales, continued fossil fuel support and creative carbon accounting in the extreme.

That’s where we come in. Today, we are launching a new “Countdown to Glasgow” campaign, with climate campaigns spanning the globe, targeting 16 of global finance’s biggest greenwashers. The pivotal UN climate summit in Glasgow in November is being billed as the “finance summit” with the UK government keen to show that the City of London is stepping up on green finance. Yet as the G7 summit demonstrated, they are unable – or rather, unwilling – to take on private finance. In the UK, report after report has exposed the fossil fuel addiction of the City of London, but still government and regulators fail to act.

Our campaign identifies the promises and reality of the biggest climate (finance) culprits. Take Barclays, which has made a commitment to go net-zero by 2050, yet remains Europe’s number one “fossil bank’” supporting coal companies to the tune of $28bn (£20bn) between October 2018 and October 2020.

Or BlackRock, the asset management titan managing nine trillion dollars of assets, which has established itself as a major voice on climate action while holding $24bn (£17bn) in companies with coal expansion plans, and voting in support of European oil majors.

With targets all around the world, from London to Tokyo, we’re establishing a blueprint for how to take on fossil finance. Over the last few months, activists have upped the ante on these fossil financiers – if they don’t change tune soon, they can expect constant pressure, all the way up to Glasgow, and beyond.

Scarlett Westbrook is a prominent youth climate activist – she's a Teach the Future campaign coordinator at SOS-UK and a volunteer campaigner and spokesperson at UK Student Climate Network

Lucie Pinson is a French environmentalist and the founder and director of the NGO Reclaim Finance, she won the Goldman Prize in 2020, and write for various outlets on climate

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