Environmental campaign groups play an active and noisy role in shaping government policy and pressuring financial institutions on issues such as climate change and deforestation. Jacob Atkins speaks to three campaigners from organisations frequently quoted in these pages to get a better understanding of what they want and how they are going about achieving it.
Laurie van der Burg – global public finance co-manager, Oil Change International
GTR: Tell us about your career and how you got into campaigning.
van der Burg: I was born in Lelystad in the Netherlands, which is a part of the country that used to be under water. It’s a really good example of how we can alter the environment, but of course, there are limits to the extent that we are able to do that and it can backfire if you try to alter the environment at too great a scale.
Working at a think tank in London for two years, I realised that we have all the evidence that we need to make this transition and that it’s very rational to stop subsidising the fossil fuel industry. I decided to move from a research role to more of a campaigner role, and I went to work with Friends of the Earth Netherlands, where I led the climate litigation case against Shell for three years.
GTR: That was quite a significant case and judgement against Shell, in which a Dutch court ordered the company to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 45% compared to 2019 levels. What was it like working on that?
van der Burg: I learned a lot about the industry and was able to build a really strong network of researchers, lawyers and campaigners in the Netherlands and internationally. It was very exciting to do the work, but also exhausting.
At the time I thought there was only a tiny chance that we would win the case, but even if we didn’t win, we would be putting the facts on the table. An independent judge would be assessing those facts, and it would not be possible for Shell to make claims that are not supported by evidence in court.
GTR: What are Oil Change International’s goals?
van der Burg: We are an international NGO headquartered in Washington DC, with about 20 offices spread around the world including in New Zealand, Norway, the UK, Canada and the Netherlands.
We focus on making sure that we achieve a managed phase-out of the oil and gas industry in line with the goal to keep global warming limited to 1.5 degrees or bringing it back to 1.5 degrees once it exceeds that limit. Our objective is to make sure that governments plan for that transition and make it happen in a way that is just. By that I mean in a way that the communities and workers that are most affected by this transition are actually supported through the transition, and also in a way where the richest countries who have the greatest historic responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions move fastest in phasing out oil and gas.
GTR: How do you go about achieving that?
van der Burg: We have the slogan ‘data driven and people powered’. We have built our own massive public energy finance database, where we have collected over 14,000 public energy finance transactions. We use that database for our own analysis, and also share it with movement partners, journalists, government officials and academics.
GTR: Do you lobby governments and public finance institutions as well?
van der Burg: We do a lot of direct advocacy. We have focused on a ‘first movers’ strategy where we are trying to bring together the most progressive institutions and countries so that they can set a good example for other countries and institutions to follow.
We have tried to encourage institutions such as the European Investment Bank, and countries like the UK, to work together and convince others to join them in ending public finance for fossil fuels and instead prioritising clean energy finance.
We achieved a pledge to end public finance for fossil fuels by the end of this year, and we’re now very much focused on making sure countries actually follow through on those commitments and implement them at the national level.
GTR: What would a successful 2022 look like for you?
van der Burg: I would like to see the G7 statements this year reflect the commitments [to end public finance for fossil fuels] made in Glasgow, although it will be very difficult to get Japan to sign off on those.
I would also like to see a proposal tabled at the OECD for export credit restrictions for oil and gas finance.
I think this is the right moment for the more progressive countries to get that debate going.
GTR: What is your approach to collaboration with export credit agencies and other organisations?
van der Burg: At all these institutions, even at Shell, there are definitely people that want to see this transition happen, and play their role within these institutions to make them transform and change course.
But often, of course, what people can do is limited by their mandate.
For example, what government officials can do very much depends on the government agenda, and for institution officials it also depends on what industries are benefiting from the financing from them and the amount of influence they have over the policies and direction of that institution.
Chris Moye – senior Amazon forests investigator, Global Witness
GTR: How did you end up in this line of work?
Moye: As a child I read environmentalists like George Monbiot and books like Amazon Watershed, which were quite informative and important as precursors to the problems of climate change. I volunteered for an organisation called Peace Brigades International, which protects at-risk human rights defenders.
That volunteering experience established the desire to work for NGOs like Global Witness that look at those kinds of issues.
GTR: How does Global Witness decide what to investigate, and what is the life cycle of an investigation?
Moye: Generally, we conduct a desktop review of available literature and speak to experts from academia, civil society, the private sector and government to identify a particular problem and then drill down into it. That might involve scraping and sifting through reams of data and carrying out a field investigation. Those investigations can take anywhere from four to six weeks and can involve undercover investigations or interviews with ranchers, human rights defenders and local community members.
We then go through an internal review process, a legal process and engaging with anyone we’ve made accusations against. Then there’s post-publication advocacy and meeting any decision-makers who can leverage their influence to try to solve the problems we have identified. Currently, the three-year strategy we have is focusing on the financial sector’s exposure to deforestation in Southeast Asia, the Amazon and the Congo Basin.
GTR: How did the current strategy of looking at the financial sector’s exposure to deforestation begin and what is the expected timeline?
Moye: We felt that the western financial sector has exposure to deforestation in the Amazon, particularly in Brazil, but wasn’t being considered in the debate about new initiatives emerging in the US, EU and UK to try and regulate commodities that drive deforestation. We felt the financial sector has responsibilities equal to the importers, through the financial services and investments they provide to the companies whose supply chains link up to commodity-driven deforestation.
GTR: Are banks and financial institutions now doing better on these issues?
Moye: Definitely. Sustainability offices used to be small with not much investment by banks. Now, I think there’s a new generation of sustainability officers emerging – they’re very climate conscious. Banks are also very much aware of their reputation as potential stewards of the environment. You’re seeing banks and asset managers divesting from companies such as JBS [a large Brazilian meat processor] and meeting with government officials to express concern about the agriculture sector’s drive into forests.
The rub is that these are voluntary commitments. It’s very hodgepodge and dependent on the specific bank, which means there are many loopholes.
GTR: When you meet with banks after a report comes out, do you get the sense they are genuinely interested?
Moye: As to how open they’ll be, it depends on the particular bank and the particular kind of financing that we’re exposing, and obviously the seriousness of the allegations. Some institutions are very restricted in what they can say but others have sustainability officers who are very, very open and some of them used to work for the NGO sector.
GTR: What would a successful 2022 look like for you?
Moye: I’d like to see the UK introduce a strong secondary regulation to implement provisions in the Environment Act to prohibit the import of commodities linked to illegal deforestation. We would like to see more financial institutions take action against companies that are failing egregiously to deal with deforestation, such as JBS.
Lastly, we want to see governments in the EU, the UK and the US, acknowledge and begin taking steps to ensure that the financial sector is subject to the same provisions as importers of forest-risk commodities.
Adam McGibbon – UK campaign lead, Market Forces
GTR: What led you to join Market Forces?
McGibbon: Before I worked at Market Forces, I worked at Global Witness, where I co-ordinated a successful three-year civil society campaign to get the UK government to end its multi-billion-pound financing of fossil fuel projects overseas. We got the government to announce this ahead of Cop26, a world first, and the momentum from that ended up convincing 39 other countries to do the same. Before that, I worked as an elections campaign manager, helping to elect politicians who understand and will take action on the climate crisis.
GTR: How does Market Forces work? What are its goals?
McGibbon: Market Forces works to shift finance away from activities that harm the environment. Our work exposes the institutions that are financing environmentally destructive projects and helps citizens hold these institutions accountable. We have an international team of energy experts, campaigners and researchers working to move banks, insurance companies, pension funds and asset managers away from fossil fuels.
In the UK, Market Forces is quite young, only a year and a half old, but we’ve already established ourselves and we’ve got a few wins we’re proud of under our belt – changing the climate policies of several banks and forcing major insurance companies to rule out underwriting the Adani Carmichael mine in Australia.
GTR: You often meet with banks or resources companies and negotiate over their response to shareholder resolutions. Why do you take that approach versus a more absolutist stance?
McGibbon: What matters to us is having impact and changing the financial system for the better. We’re happy to use a diversity of tactics and strategies to bring that about. We are flexible and don’t have a rigid way of doing things.
GTR: How often do you find yourself in conversation with bankers or the people you are campaigning against?
McGibbon: Very often, and we welcome those conversations, both on and off the record. We often speak to the senior management of the companies we work on and have productive conversations, but also rank-and-file staff, who are increasingly concerned about climate change and don’t want their company to contribute to it. Staff want to feel proud of the job they do, and they don’t want careers that are destroying the planet. This is going to be a bigger and bigger issue for companies to manage as time goes on.
We’ve had recent examples where companies have refused to engage with us at all, and it ends up exposing them to much more reputational risk than if we’d just been able to have a private conversation with them – and we often achieve our objectives anyway.
GTR: Sometimes on LinkedIn you comment on posts by bankers or insurers in which they’ve extolled their green credentials, pointing to their failures in other areas. Does that ever lead to any conversations or progress?
McGibbon: Yes – we want to be able to challenge greenwash wherever we see it. We’re increasingly seeing financial institutions claim to be leaders on climate, but these claims are often flimsy. There’s a simple test: if you are still funding fossil fuels and fossil fuel companies, and have no plans to stop, then you are not serious about climate change. It doesn’t matter how many ‘green finance’ announcements a financial institution makes; if it’s still funding dirty finance, that cancels out all of that good.
GTR: Are large financial institutions beginning to walk the talk on climate and the energy transition?
McGibbon: We see some asset managers beginning to treat the crisis with the seriousness it deserves, and some banks sluggishly moving towards policies that take science into account. In October last year, the French bank La Banque Postale committed to immediately ending financing for oil and gas energy projects, financial services for upstream providers and a complete withdrawal by 2030. That is the kind of ambition we need to see across the financial sector: one that sets clear deadlines in line with science and gives those companies that are willing to transition the time to do so.
Unfortunately we see lots of banks using the language of ‘transition’ to justify business as usual, making as much money as possible from fossil fuels while paying lip service to climate action.
GTR: What would a successful 2022 look like for you?
McGibbon: The year when the financial world understands, and begins to take action on, the unavoidable truth – that the ‘net zero by 2050’ pledges that many institutions have made require action now, not in a few decades. And that action is very simple – immediately stop financing the expansion of the fossil fuel industry.