NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 21:  People protest for greater action against climate change during the People's Climate March on September 21, 2014 in New York City. The march, which calls for drastic political and economic changes to slow global warming, has been organized by a coalition of unions, activists, politicians and scientists.  (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

A grass-roots movement against fossil fuels has secured its highest profile convert, as the family foundation built on the riches of John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil announced plans to cuts its oil and coal investments.

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund joins some 800 institutions and individuals, responsible for $50bn of investment, that have pledged to sell some or all of their fossil fuel holdings.

The effort to make oil, gas and coal investments as unpopular as tobacco stocks or investments in apartheid-era South Africa gathered momentum in advance of Tuesday’s New York climate summit organised by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general.

“Stay away from this fossil fuel-based investment. Do much more on renewable energy,” Mr Ban told business and government leaders on Monday.

The Rockefeller fund said it would sell its investments in the coal and Canadian oil sands industries and review its remaining fossil fuel holdings for possible sale in one or two years

Stephen Heintz, the fund’s president, suggested that the oilman who founded Standard Oil in 1870 would approve and would be “leading the charge” into renewable energy if he were alive today.

“He was an innovative, forward-looking businessman,” Mr Heintz said. “He would recognise that clean energy technology is the business of the future.”

However, Christophe de Margerie, chief executive of Total, one of the world’s largest oil companies, criticised the move, saying he had told the fund that “without energy, the Rockefeller Center wouldn’t exist”.

Mr Heintz acknowledged that his fund’s holdings were not very large but said that selling them would send a “signal” about its views on the future of energy. “The science is crystal clear” on climate change, he said. “We’ve just got to leave the bulk of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground.”

Several large energy companies have sent representatives to the New York summit, according to the UN, including China’s Sinopec, France’s Total, Norway’s Statoil and Royal Dutch Shell.

The World Bank announced at Monday’s meeting that more than 1,000 companies and investors had expressed support for putting a price on the carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels that drive climate change.

The list included Shell, which has had an internal carbon price for some years, as well as Nokia, LG Electronics and Lego.

A total of 73 national and 11 regional governments responsible for 54 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are now pricing carbon or plan to do so, the World Bank said, including China, the EU, and several US states.

Separately, some of the world’s largest institutional investors managing $24tn in total have backed carbon pricing this week, including BlackRock and Calpers.

More than 120 world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, are due to set out more actions to combat climate change at the one-day UN summit on Tuesday.

The meeting is supposed to bolster political momentum ahead of a much larger conference in Paris at the end of next year, where negotiations on a global climate agreement to lower emissions are due to be finalised.

The Rockefeller family has been unsuccessful with attempted engagement in the past. In 2008, it campaigned for ExxonMobil, one of Standard Oil’s successors, to appoint an independent chairman. It won 39.5 per cent of the vote but failed to pass.

There is no robust evidence that divestment campaigns have any impact on share prices, and the effects, if any, are likely to be more significant for small coal companies than for ExxonMobil, which has a market capitalisation of $412bn.

Mark Fulton of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a think-tank that works on investment and climate change, said he expected divestment to encourage companies that retained their shares to engage with managements. “It will gather pace – it’s like a ball rolling downhill,” he said.

Other investors say they would rather engage with company managements to change their strategies and many funds are unable to divest under the terms of their mandates.

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