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What Does Norway's Divestment from Coal Mean for the Climate Change Movement?

Activists, including Bill McKibben, were praising the country's parliament for voting to pull out of investments in companies that dealt heavily in coal.

by Mike Pearl
Jun 5 2015, 9:40pm

Photo via Flickr user James Ennis

On Friday, Norway's Parliament just voted in favor of a move that's basically a huge middle finger to the fossil fuel industry: It's dumping a bunch of coal-related investments from its pension fund's portfolio. That fund holds around $890 billion in total assets, according to the New York Times, which makes it one of the biggest players in the movement to take money away from the companies that do the most damage from the environment

This divestment movement emerged on a few college campuses in 2011, modeled after the South African divestment movement in the 1980s that was designed to scare business away from the Apartheid regime. Along with other widespread activism, protest, and boycotts, divestment is sometimes credited with speeding up the end of the Apartheid.

Critics call divestment a purely symbolic protest tactic, and even some environmentalists, notably Mike Hulme, oppose it. But in an interview with VICE Bill McKibben, one of the movement's most famous advocates, explained the idea behind divesting from these companies: "It can't in the short run bankrupt them, but it already is politically bankrupting them."

"The fossil fuel industry is suddenly spectacularly on the defensive, as everyone starts to understand it won't be able to keep accessing its reserves," McKibben added.

Norway makes for an interesting adversary for the fossil fuel industry given its massive piles of oil wealth. The oil and gas industry accounts for a quarter of Norway's GDP. In fact, when divestment activist group Gofossilfree.org published of the top 200 climate-damaging companies, Norway's government majority-owned oil company, Statoil, was number 25 among oil and gas companies.

But according to McKibben, the people of Norway are "beginning to cash in their chips and look for a new casino." Indeed, a story last year from the New York Times reported that activists and some members of parliament had fully turned on Statoil—protests at the University of Bergen called for divestment and to an end to the company's funding of academic research, and the country's parliament took the unusual step of forcing the company to cut its carbon emissions.

With a vote in Parliament on Friday, Norway joined a growing list of organizations that have pledged to give up at least some of their fossil fuel investments. That list includes the Rockefeller family charity, the city of Seattle, the Church of England, and the French insurance company ASA.

In practical terms, the move by Norway will exclude companies from the pension's portfoliio if more then 30 percent of their business activity involves coal, meaning it mostly affects mining and utilities.

According to a statement by Greenpeace Norway, "Norway is also still engaged in Arctic oil drilling, so while this is great news, there is still lots of work to do for Norway before it can brand itself as truly climate friendly."

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