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Investors controlling more than $5 trillion in assets have committed to dropping some or all fossil fuel stocks from their portfolios, according to a new report tracking the trend.
The report, released Monday, said the new total was twice the amount measured 15 months ago — a remarkable rise for a movement that began on American college campuses in 2011. Since then, divestment has expanded to the business world and institutional world, and includes large pension funds, insurers, financial institutions and religious organizations. It has also spread around the world, with 688 institutions and nearly 60,000 individuals in 76 countries divesting themselves of shares in at least some kinds of oil, gas and coal companies, according to the report.
“It’s a stunning number,” said Ellen Dorsey, the executive director of the Wallace Global Fund, which has promoted fossil fuel divestment and clean energy investment as part of its philanthropy.
The movement has also received a boost from last year’s Paris climate agreement, which set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The push for emissions reductions underscored the potential for the industry to be faced with reserves of fuels that cannot be burned if the targets are to be met — a prospect known as “stranded assets.”
Ms. Dorsey argued that since its beginnings as a moral statement against profiting from companies whose products were exacerbating climate change, more institutions have come to detect vulnerabilities in fossil fuel companies as the world shifts toward renewable sources of energy.
“This movement began as an ethical concern, was quickly matched with financial concerns, and I think it’s now being increasingly recognized as a fiduciary duty,” she said, with liability risks to trustees of institutions who fail to recognize those weaknesses and act on them.
Divesting from coal, an industry in the midst of a long-term decline, has proved to be relatively straightforward, and recent drops in the prices of oil and gas have hurt the fortunes of those industries as well.
Christopher D. Tucker, a spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said that the pro-divestment argument had been strengthened by industry troubles. “This was always going to be a kick-you-while-you’re-down strategy,” he said, “but we’re on the way up now, so the case has gotten weaker.”
While the overall value of the funds announcing divestment is measured in the trillions of dollars, the actual amount of investment that was tied to fossil fuels within those funds is much smaller, because no single industry sector predominates in most broad investment funds. Ryan Strode, the director of Arabella Advisors, the group that produced the report, said the precise value of dropped investments was impossible to know. The group focuses on the overall value of the funds under management with divestment pledges, he said, because “This is the measure of the level of influence that these investors have on the market.”
Many institutions remain unconvinced. Some universities, in rejecting calls for divestment, have cited their fiduciary responsibility to produce the greatest income from their endowments. Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, has said that the university supported research and efforts to fight climate change, but that “The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change. ”
With the election of Donald J. Trump, who has called climate change a hoax and has pledged to reverse President Obama’s signature global warming initiatives, activism will be more important, Ms. Dorsey said. And, she added, if the new president wants job growth, continuing to invest in renewable energy is the way to go.
“They should focus on the explosive industries where manufacturing jobs are being created,” she said. “In a fact-driven world, it’s just very clear.”