Originally published on Monday, May 2nd, 2022
Wall Street banks and investment firms took stock of their climate commitments this week as the boards of three major banks voted down proposals by activist investors to end support for future fossil fuel development. Wells Fargo, CitiGroup and Bank of America each said 'no' to divestment proposals, previewing a likely result for votes at firms like J.P.Morgan set for later this year.
The investors behind the push for fossil fuel divestment may have lost this year’s battle, but they believe they are winning the war. Several divestment initiatives won enough support to be reprised at next year’s proxy meetings.
Their hope is that another year of scalding temperatures and devastating weather events will bring more shareholders around to their institutions' fiduciary duty to protect fellow investors (if not the planet) from the astronomical costs of climate change.
After all, this is only year two for climate-focused investors trying to redirect major financial institutions towards sustainibility.
The trend started when activist hedge fund Engine No. 1 wrangled three seats on the board of the energy goliath and unrepentant purveyor of climate disinformation ExxonMobil.
They did so by first buying millions of dollars’ worth of shares in Exxon. Then the small firm persuaded the leadership of asset managing giant Blackrock to make good on CEO Larry Fink’s public concern for the climate crisis by taking the unusual stance of voting against company management in favor of Engine’s climate-driven investment strategy.
(How to Save a Planet produced an excellent episode on the full story of Engine Number 1.)
In the coming years, Wall Street and other Western financial firms may take further steps to manifest their net-zero pledges with concrete policies.
The consequences of these boardroom battles will play out in a pitched debate among climate activists and economists over how the Global South, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, can or should limit development of fossil fuels while raising its peoples out of generational poverty.
A wide-ranging study published in March found that between 2016, when the Paris Climate Accords went into force, and June 2021, foreign public and private institutions put up an astounding $132 billion in lending to 964 oil, gas and coal sites across Sub-Saharan Africa.
The majority of the largest private financers were from the United States and Europe, with the aforementioned J.P. Morgan topping the list ahead of Standard Chartered and Barclays.
Beyond naked financial interest, these investments reflect a belief shared by policymakers in the Global North and African leaders from Ghana to Mozambique that clean energy deployment should not undercut economic development made possible by fossil fuels and Western cash.
The core of this argument rests on a glaring hypocrisy: wealthy nations that achieved glamorous middle-class living standards, typically on the backs of exploited laborers in poor countries, are now pushing those countries to forgo energy sources they themselves continue to use to this day.
Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo appeared to be putting it politely when he said, “the term energy transition is a curious one,” insisting that the energy transition must be “multidimensional” and “accommodate various pathways to net-zero.”
Senegal’s energy minister Assiatou Sophie Gladima was less diplomatic, describing Western efforts to limit African fossil fuel projects as “like removing the ladder and asking us to jump or fly.”
This point of view amounts to one definition of climate colonialism that climate activists tend to leave aside when framing the debate around the colonial legacy of Western exploitation of fossil fuels abroad. (The deep, abiding contradictions around colonialism and climate change will be the subject of future newsletters.)
Proponents also point to research indicating that even if Africa triples down on natural methane gas in the coming decades, its emissions will hardly approach those of Louisiana.
But what some economists and energy analysts call the “divestment delusion”, activists and researchers have dubbed “the development myth,” as the harrowing real-world costs of African fossil fuel dependence come into view.
Evidence that these new Wall Street-funded fossil fuel projects have advanced living standards for everyday Africans is indeed scarce.
Despite billions in investment in coal, oil and gas projects, Sub-Saharan Africa is still far and away the most energy-poor region on Earth.
Then there’s the money trail. Profits from oil projects disproportionately funded by international investors go, unsurprisingly, out of Africa and back to overseas investors who brought them to life.
The enduring appetite for fossil fuel funding in Africa has created opportunities for China to offer deals laden with debt traps. And it is supremely unlikely that international funders will foot the bill when these enormous oil and gas infrastructure setups inevitably become stranded assets.
Furthermore, the profits that do stay in Africa all too often end up in the pockets of self-interested officials, perpetuating the systemic ties between Western-backed African fossil fuel projects have to corruption that continues to plague African economies.
In Nigeria alone, 92% of the $15 billion that disappear every year to illicit financial flows are tied directly to the oil industry.
Finally, as always, the gruesome human toll of natural resource exploitation hovers in the background. Just last week, more than 100 people were burned to death in an explosion at an illegal oil drilling operation in Nigeria. Many were women and children waiting for fuel to power their homes and businesses.
It is hard to see how the interests of the souls lost in this accident (as with so many others) were met by the development of oil and gas.
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