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Climate change: UN backs fossil fuel divestment campaign

The UN organisation in charge of global climate change negotiations is backing the fast-growing campaign persuading investors to sell off their fossil fuel assets. It said it was lending its “moral authority” to the divestment campaign because it shared the ambition to get a strong deal to tackle global warming at a crunch UN summit in Paris in December.

“We support divestment as it sends a signal to companies, especially coal companies, that the age of ‘burn what you like, when you like’ cannot continue,” said Nick Nuttall, the spokesman for the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC).

The move is likely to be controversial as the economies of many nations at the negotiating table heavily rely on coal, oil and gas. In 2013, coal-reliant Poland hosted the UNFCCC summit and was castigated for arranging a global coal industry summit alongside. Now, the World Coal Association has criticised the UNFCCC’s decision to back divestment, saying it threatened investment in cleaner coal technologies.

Several analyses have shown that there are more fossil fuelsin proven reserves than can be burned if catastrophic global warming is to be avoided, as world leaders have pledged. Divestment campaigners argue that the trillions of dollars companies continue to spend on exploration for even more fossil fuels is a danger to both the climate and investors’ capital.

“Everything we do is based on science and the science is pretty clear that we need a world with a lot less fossil fuels,” Nuttall told the Guardian. “We have lent our own moral authority as the UN to those groups or organisations who are divesting. We are saying ‘we support your aims and ambitions because they are fairly and squarely our ambition’, which is to get a good deal in Paris.”

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, sent a related message to investors in November, saying: “Please reduce your investments in the coal- and fossil-fuel-based economy and [move] to renewable energy.” But he stopped short of backing the divestment campaign itself.

Many religious groups are among the 180 organisations that have already divested their funds from fossil fuels, as well as city authorities and universities. “We see the divestment of churches very much as a moral imperative for them,” Nuttall said. “If their goal is relieving the suffering of millions of people, then divestment is in line with how they want the world to be.”

A recent tweet from the UNFCCC said: “Divestment worked to free [South Africa] of apartheid. Now it can help free us of fossil fuels.” The tweet carried a quote and image of thearchbishop Desmond Tutu, who in 2014 told the Guardian: “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.”

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