‘No moral justification’ for subsidising fossil fuel companies through West Sussex Pension Fund

The West Sussex Pension Fund has not divested from fossil fuels but has supported investment opportunities ‘in line with a low-carbon future’.

A climate protest outside County Hall in early 2019. Photo by Derek Martin
A climate protest outside County Hall in early 2019. Photo by Derek Martin

The COP26 climate change summit is due to start in Glasgow at the start of November and will see world leaders come together to discuss action to reduce carbon emissions.

Ahead of the conference, environmental groups Friends of the Earth and Platform have released research showing local authorities across the UK invested nearly £10billion in fossil fuels through their pension funds last year.

Campaigners are now calling for these pension funds to divest from oil, gas and coal industries ahead of COP26.

The West Sussex Pension Fund is administered by West Sussex County Council via a pensions committee made up of councillors and employer and member representatives.

According to the group’s figures for 2020 the West Sussex fund had nearly £129m invested in fossil fuels.

A Divest West Sussex demonstration is due to march from Chichester’s Market Cross to County Hall ahead of a full council meeting on Friday (October 22) starting at 9.45am.

Emma Cameron, chair of Worthing Climate Action Network, said: “We cannot morally justify subsidising the fossil fuel companies responsible for carbon emissions that are killing life on our planet – nor does it make good financial sense, fossil free investments now regularly outperform those that include fossil fuels.”

A spokesman for WSCC said: “The committee makes decisions and takes responsibility for management of the fund, acting in the interests of all employers, members and their dependants.

“West Sussex County Council is one of over 200 employers who make up the membership of the pension fund.

The county council can express an opinion about the running of the fund, but decisions by the pension committee regarding the fund will consider the interests and views of all employers and individual members – of which there are over 80,000.

“Earlier this year the pension fund published an investment strategy statement which expressed support for investment opportunities in line with a low-carbon future. The pensions committee is now actively working to implement this strategy by introducing objectives which recognise international treaties (such as the Paris Agreement) and committing to sectors and companies which are similarly aligned.

“The pensions committee is always mindful of its legal duty to obtain the best possible return on the long-term investments of the pension fund to deliver financially sustainable returns to meet the future pension benefits of its members. Good practice in terms of social, environmental and corporate governance issues is likely to impact positively on companies’ financial performance.

“Therefore, investment managers consider, amongst other factors, the effects of environmental issues and the proposed pathway to a low carbon future on the performance of a company.

“Currently the pension fund has chosen to invest responsibly rather than divest or restrict the investment opportunities.”

But an amendment tabled from the Conservative benches changed the motion quite drastically.

Instead of voting for divestment, the council called on the pensions committee to ‘focus on sustainable investment for growth through the application of its environmental, social and governance principles’.

Robert Noyes, an energy economist at campaign group Platform and a coordinator of pressure group UK Divest, said: “As we approach the UN climate talks in Glasgow this November, local councils have a simple choice.

“They can pay polluters to wreck the planet, or they can play their part in the global climate effort by ending their fossil fuel investments.

“While their net-zero adverts are appealing, not a single fossil fuel company has implemented measures to comply with the 2015 UN Paris Agreement, while in 2020, on average these companies spent just 1% of their annual capital expenditure on clean energy. “There is no change coming from continued engagement, there is only delay.

“With support for climate action at an all time high, and the financial benefits of fossil fuel funding increasingly unclear - the choice is as easy as it is simple: divest from fossil fuels, join the $14.5tn coalition of climate leaders in drawing a line, and invest in a future worth retiring into.”