Norway’s $890 billion government pension fund, considered the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, will sell off many of its investments related to coal, making it the biggest institution yet to join a growing international movement to abandon at least some fossil fuel stocks.
Parliament voted Friday to order the fund to shift its holdings out of billions of dollars of stock in companies whose businesses rely at least 30 percent on coal. A committee vote last week made Friday’s decision all but a formality; it will take effect next year.
The decision — which could seem paradoxical, given that Norway is a major producer of oil and gas — is certain to add momentum to a push to divest in fossil fuel stocks that emerged three years ago on college campuses. The Church of England announced last month that it would drop companies involved with coal or oil sands from its $14 billion investment fund, and the French insurer AXA said it would cut some $560 million in coal-related investments from its portfolio.
Members of the Rockefeller family, whose fortune derives from Standard Oil, also pledged last year to remove fossil fuel investments, beginning with coal, from their philanthropic Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
There is no question that the decision by various funds to sell fossil fuel stocks has little or no impact on the vast market capitalization of most companies. For that reason, the divestment movement has long been dismissed by many institutions, especially oil companies, as symbolic.
But divestment decisions from funds like Norway’s are important because they require, as a first step, discussions that once seemed taboo, said Bob Massie, a longtime climate activist and a founder of the Investor Network on Climate Risk, an organization of institutional investors affiliated with the business environmental group Ceres.
“It lays the groundwork for the transformation of cultural and political views in a major topic that people would rather avoid,” he said. “This requires people to say, ‘What are we going to do? What are our choices? What do we believe in?’ ”
Mr. Massie, who was deeply involved during the 1980s in the South African divestment movement and who wrote a well-regarded history of it, said that in both cases, “There’s a mysterious process by which an ‘unthinkable, ridiculous’ proposition becomes ‘possible.’ ”
Divesting from the economically battered coal industry is a more selective move than a broad action against all fossil fuels, of course. But Jamie Henn, a co-founder of 350.org, a group that has promoted divestment, said that coal was the most environmentally damaging fossil fuel, and that the various divestment decisions “send a clear political signal that we think will hasten the industry’s inevitable decline — and push governments to take broader action.”
Marthe Skaar, a spokeswoman for Norges Bank Investment Management, which manages the huge Norwegian fund, said its goal was “safeguarding and building financial wealth for future generations in Norway.” Its reasons for divesting include “long-established climate-change risk-management expectations,” she said.
The fund’s 30 percent threshold for divestment applies to whether a company’s business is based on coal, as in mining companies, or the percentage of its revenue that comes from coal. The second category would include power companies that burn coal.
Norway’s decision underscores its ambivalence about fossil fuels. The fund itself is nicknamed the “oil fund” because its wealth comes from the nation’s oil and gas revenues. But proponents of the move say that it helps prevent Norway from compounding the environmental damage that its own production causes by investing in environmentally destructive companies…
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