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The giant ‘Divest Now’ feet (and sign) outside County Hall, 22 February 2024. Photo: Divest East Sussex

Anger over further delay to fossil fuel divestment vote

On Thursday (22 Feb) campaigners took two giant pink feet to County Hall in Lewes, in protest over continued County Council ‘foot-dragging’ on crucial climate action. Gabriel Carlyle reports.

Seven plucky climate campaigners braved strong winds and heavy rain to stage the protest with a pair of giant pink cardboard feet (labelled ‘DIVEST’ and ‘NOW’) outside County Hall in Lewes on Thursday (22 Feb).

Our demand? For East Sussex County Council (ESCC) and the East Sussex Pension Fund (ESPF) to ‘stop dragging their feet on climate’ and vote for fossil fuel divestment.

The protest – which was timed to coincide with a meeting of the East Sussex Pension Committee, the Fund’s decision-making body – took place after voting on three fossil fuel motions, originally proposed last September, was postponed for a second time.

The East Sussex Pension Fund, which covers Brighton & Hove as well as East Sussex, is administered by ESCC. It currently has tens of millions of pounds of local people’s pension monies invested in oil and gas companies like Shell and BP.

A long list of organisations and individuals have called on the Fund to divest from fossil fuels, including: Bexhill Town Council, Brighton & Hove City Council, Hastings Borough Council, Lewes District and Town Councils, Peacehaven Town Council, Rother District Council, Saleshurst & Robertsbridge Parish Council, Maria Caulfield MP (Cons, Lewes), Caroline Lucas Green MP (Green, Brighton Pavilion) and UNISON.

A year-long delay?

The three divestment proposals were made by Cllrs Georgia Taylor (Green, Forest Row & Groombridge) and David Tutt (Liberal Democrat, Eastbourne, St Anthony’s) – both of whom sit on the Pension Committee – at the September 2023 Pension Committee meeting.

Voting on the proposals was then delayed pending further analysis by the Fund’s officers and advisors. However, five months later this analysis is still not ready.

The earliest that the vote could now take place is the next Pension Committee meeting on 19 June – fully nine months after the proposals were originally made. However, at the meeting it was suggested that voting may not be possible until the 25 September meeting, more than a year after the motions were proposed.

This is plainly outrageous, and further proof that the Fund’s own whitewash report on ‘Divestment v engagement’ – which the Fund wasted as much as £50k of public money on – was never intended to be anything other than a cover for continuing business as usual.

‘Protecting’ County Hall

Pension Fund member Sarah Hazlehurst with cake and divestment birthday message, outside County Hall, 22 February 2024. Photo: Divest East Sussex

Security guards were out in force (I counted at least sixteen).

Based on past costings obtained using the Freedom of Information Act, Council leader Keith Glazier wasted at least £2k of public money ‘protecting’ the Hall from two cardboard feet and a cake…

Pension Fund member Sarah Hazlehurst, who will turn 65 next week and start receiving her ESPF pension, attended Thursday’s protest, noting: ‘The best birthday present I could have when I start receiving my East Sussex pension next week would be a commitment from by the East Sussex Pension Fund to stop investing local people’s pensions in the giant fossil fuel companies – like Shell and BP – that are driving the climate crisis.’

She added: ‘It’s outrageous that more than four years after declaring a “climate emergency”, East Sussex County Council is still dragging its feet on climate action and further delaying a vote on something that it should have done ten years ago. By making a public commitment to divest from fossil companies, the East Sussex Pension Fund would be showing that East Sussex County Council doesn’t just talk-the-talk on this issue but that it also walks-the-walk: taking effective, evidence-based action wherever possible. Moreover, a recent analysis of these issues commissioned by the Fund appears to show that the commitment that we’ve long been calling for would be both fairly straightforward to implement and have no significant negative repercussions for the Fund’s overall strategy. It’s time to divest.’

East Sussex County Council: stop dragging your feet on fossil fuel divestment! Outside County Hall, Lewes, 22 February 2024. Photo: Divest East Sussex

The three divestment proposals

The first of the three proposals would commit the fund to make no new investments in fossil fuel extractors; to fully divest from all fossil fuel extractor public equities and corporate bonds within five years; and to make no new private equity investments that include fossil fuel extractors.

This is essentially the same as the option outlined in column 3 of the table on p.22 of the Fund’s own ‘Summary: Engagement vs Divestment’ report.

The latter option would not involve the Fund leaving the ACCESS pool of pension funds (which might otherwise make divestment more difficult to carry out).

Moreover, the report itself suggests that this option wouldn’t impact the Fund negatively in any significant way.

The second proposal would commit the Fund to exclude the public equity or corporate bond of any fossil fuel extractor that has failed to commit to ‘no new fossil fuels’ by the September 2024 Pension Committee meeting; and to not make any new private equity investments in such fossil extractors.

The Fund itself acknowledges that ‘divestment is necessary when companies are unresponsive’.

If burned, the world’s developed oil and gas reserves are more than enough to bust 1.5°C. So any oil and gas company that is still planning to develop new fossil fuels at this point should clearly be a target for divestment.

And the third proposal would commit the Fund to fully divest from all thermal coal public equities and corporate bonds within one year; and to make no new private equity investments that include thermal coal.

The Fund’s own report (see above) says that ‘tackling exposure to thermal coal’ could be a key focus for escalation.

More info:

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Posted 16:57 Friday, Feb 23, 2024 In: Campaigns

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