Boycott Barclays while it fails on fracking

| 16th October 2018
Creative Commons Licensed
Banks like Barclays won't drop their investments in fracking and other fossil fuels if we ask nicely.

Imagine if every chip shop, takeaway or café in a town or city boycotted Barclays until they ditched fossil fuel finance.

Barclays has increased its loan to Yorkshire fracking company Third Energy by £1.5m to a total of 16.9m, Drill or Drop reported last week.

The bank had committed at its 2017 AGM to sell its holdings in Third Energy. Yet 12 months on - at the 2018 AGM - and it had not done so.

John McFarlane, the bank chairman told shareholders: “We regret that we made this investment. We’re hoping to divest this company at the appropriate time. As soon as possible.”

Fossil fuel finance

Some campaigners suspected that Barclays would not be divesting themselves of Third Energy ‘as soon as possible’ but may instead wait for fracking to begin so that their returns would be more lucrative.

The inaction over this investment is just one example of Barclays’ endemic failure to respond to public calls to end its financing of rogue fossil fuel companies.

The bank also lags on reviewing its policy on coal and tar sands, despite those fuels’ popularity falling off a cliff edge in the finance and insurance sectors and its continued £3.6bn financing of all fossil fuels per annum. Its inaction underlines the disregard with which it treats concerned customers and members of the public.

The lesson of this incident is that we cannot rely on asking nicely that Barclays and other major banks put social and environmental justice at the core of their investment policies.

Sending shareholder resolutions and taking action at local branches alone will not force Barclays to budge on its deep commitment to fossil fuel finance.

Bank accounts

Alongside the carrot of ‘looking green’, we need to exercise a stick of mass collective action to win our demands of Barclays and other banks.

This is why groups like People & Planet are calling for a wave of institutional boycotts to leverage demands for Barclays to ditch fossil fuel finance for all companies and extraction projects through their Divest Barclays campaign.

The idea is that public or reputable institutions like universities, students’ unions, faith groups, sports teams, cultural spaces, large events and local businesses are composed of and represent many broad cross-sections of society.

By organising for our institutions to boycott fossil fuel financing banks, we can communicate our collective demands for a different finance system with power and leverage greater than any individual consumer boycott.

While an average consumer may have between a few hundred or thousand pounds running through their bank account at any time, the institutions we belong to command bank accounts sometimes reaching hundreds of thousands if not millions.

Student campaigners

Barclays feels the effect when those institutions move their money in ways they never will with individual consumers. Institutions like universities or sports teams also have huge cultural reach and political clout.

Drawing on the logic of the successful divestment campaign, by disassociating themselves with banks or fossil fuel companies reputable institutions contribute to widening political space to reign them in.

This isn’t to say that individuals moving their money to a more ethical bank shouldn’t be facilitated, but it is to recognise that when acting together using our institutions as leverage, we are all more powerful.

For People & Planet, the institutional boycott campaign begins on university campuses where they have recent success of organising against the fossil fuel industry.

With 68 UK universities having made a divestment commitment after student pressure, People & Planet’s network of student campaigners know how to get quick wins out of their institutions.

Finance sector

Already Sheffield, Bristol and Trinity St David students’ unions have boycotted Barclays as part of the campaign. This year they’re expecting universities to follow suit.  

Institutional boycott campaigns sit alongside creative actions at branches in the community and disruptions at major Barclays events like their AGM, and collaborative partnerships with other NGOs who are using their seat at the table to lobby hard on the inside of the bank.

Though People & Planet’s Divest Barclays campaign may be organised from the campus and make initial demands of the University, these local and national actions exemplify the potential of fossil free finance campaigning and institutional boycotts as a tactic to drag the climate justice movement off campuses and into local communities.

For a long time, divestment campaigners have spoken of the need to build a mass movement to dismantle the fossil fuel industry.

This could not be more clearly emphasised by the scale of our ambitions to transform the finance sector by severing its ties to fossil fuels and putting it to work in favour of climate justice.

Get involved

By drawing on the experience of successful university divestment campaigns, Divest Barclays’ next step can be organising for local businesses and sports teams to boycott the bank too.

Imagine if every chip shop, takeaway or café in a town or city boycotted Barclays until they ditched fossil fuel finance.

This tactic is not the preserve of privileged students at wealthy universities. Institutional boycotts can be won by anybody active in civil society.

It is time to radically expand the base of climate justice movement organising for fossil free finance, giving ordinary people real power to determine and win solutions to the climate crisis by acting through their institutions.

If “the hothouse earth”, the IPCC report or fracking in Lancashire have got you scared or angry about the trajectory of our planet, then now is the time to get active. Start a campaign for the institutions of your community to boycott Barclays until they ditch fossil fuel finance.

This Author

Chris Saltmarsh is co-director: climate change campaigns at People & Planet where he manages the UK university divestment and Divest Barclays campaigns.  He tweets at @chris_saltmarsh.

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