Ross Clark

Is the National Trust’s fossil fuel divestment really that ethical?

Is the National Trust's fossil fuel divestment really that ethical?
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I often see National Trust vehicles around my way – transporting animals, digging, cutting wood and constructing bridges and the like. They do not appear to me to be electric-powered. I shouldn’t be surprised if, like my car, they are still powered by filthy old diesel. I am sure, like me, the Trust would rather use clean vehicles – it has already announced its ambition to source 50 per cent of its energy needs from renewable sources by next year. But for the moment the Trust, like the rest of us, would struggle to live on renewable energy alone. That hasn’t, however, stopped the Trust this morning announcing that it will divest the £45 million it has invested in oil and gas companies.

In doing so it may win plaudits from the green lobby – or if not at least it might avert being 'named and shamed’ as it was in the Guardian last November as an investor in fossil fuels. But is there really anything ethical about divesting from oil and gas while you are continuing to use the product? Many might have another word for it: hypocrisy. Divestment has become a goody-goody gesture which doesn’t help the planet in any way – not least because oil companies are themselves among the biggest investors in renewable energy (Shell is currently spending £1 billion a year on this) while of course continuing to supply the fuels which all industrialised societies will remain dependent on for many years to come.

In its claim for environmental brownie points, the National Trust says it has converted some of its properties to non-fossil fuels. Ickworth House in Suffolk, for example, is now powered by a biomass boiler using wood from the grounds. But that hardly represents a solution for the country as a whole – few of us have homes surrounded by dozens of acres of woodland. Even if we did, heating our homes in this way would lead to an appalling reduction in air quality as wood-burning is one of the worst emitters of deadly particulate pollution. While I still run a diesel car, I stopped having wood fires in my house last winter for that very reason – I don’t want to foul the air.

As for others who have jumped on the divestment bandwagon, they are even more hypocritical. The Rockefeller Family has made a show of pulling out of fossil fuel companies – yes, the very family which made its fortune from Standard Oil. If they feel that strongly, why don’t they give their fortune away, so shaming it must be? It is the same with Norway’s government pension fund – yes, the country which owes its fantastic modern wealth to North Sea oil. And then there is Richard Branson – the very same Richard Branson who owns a transatlantic airline. Does he really want oil and gas companies to disappear and with them the fuel for his aircraft?

Divestment is nothing more than a pathetic case of virtue-signalling, carried out by people who know full well that we rely on oil and gas companies to keep the economy going and will do so for a long time yet.