And we thought it was all about symbolism...
It's been amazing to watch how the fossil fuel divestment movement has grown in a few short years. When Harvard students voted to divest back in 2012, for example, the conversation was mostly about undermining Big Energy's social license to operate. A year later, when Bill McKibben made the case for divestment he focused mostly on the idea of churches, universities and other symbolic institutions making these companies 'pariahs'.
Now, in honor of the 1,000th institution signing up to divest (bringing the total value to nearly $8 trillion), Bill McKibben has an excellent update on the state of the movement over at The Guardian. While the symbolism of all this still matters, says the maestro, it's also becoming clear that divestment has become a very real financial force in and of itself:
Peabody, the world’s biggest coal company, announced plans for bankruptcy in 2016; on the list of reasons for its problems, it counted the divestment movement, which was making it hard to raise capital. Indeed, just a few weeks ago analysts at that radical collective Goldman Sachs said the “divestment movement has been a key driver of the coal sector’s 60% de-rating over the past five years”. [...] Now the contagion seems to be spreading to the oil and gas sector, where Shell announced earlier this year that divestment should be considered a “material risk” to its business.
Indeed, no sooner does McKibben write this piece than Cleantechnica reports that Westmoreland, the 6th largest coal company in the US, is filing for bankruptcy too.
True, divestment is hardly the only reason certain fossil fuel companies are in trouble. 42% of coal plants are losing money already, and that figure is only going to get worse as renewables get cheaper and polluting gets more expensive. Similarly, Big Oil may not be sweating the Tesla Model 3 just yet, but there's a growing list of diverse threats that could soon converge to put a dent in demand.
And that's the thing: Incumbents seem invincible until one day they are not. And anyone who knows anything about climate change is beginning to realize that there is no sane, sustainable or morally justifiable version of the future in which we continue to burn fossil fuels any longer than we have to. As Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, has said: Most fossil fuels are unburnable. And that makes them basically worthless.
Investors would do well to take note.