CIVICUS discusses the hopes and roles of civil society at the forthcoming COP28 climate summit with Harlee Richards, strategist at Follow This.
Follow This is a Dutch organisation representing over 10,000 green shareholders in oil and gas companies. It supports investor stewardship by putting forward resolutions that asks companies to set targets consistent with the Paris Agreement for all emissions. Its objective is to compel companies to put their brains and billions behind the energy transition.
What environmental issues does Follow This work on, and what’s your role?
Starting in the late months of 2021, I have primarily focused on fundraising, organisational development and strategy. This includes conducting workshops to assess our impact and align our operations effectively. I have helped the organisation to visualise the landscape of our operations to maximise our impact and am currently focusing on partnership work, connecting with other organisations to find opportunities to collaborate in the fight against the climate crisis.
Follow This works to address climate change with a focus on climate mitigation. We advocate for more ambitious climate action, particularly the reduction of emissions by oil and gas companies. As green shareholders, we hold stakes in these companies and put forward resolutions to push for more aggressive climate targets to reduce their emissions.
Additionally, we work to engage and empower investors to vote in favour of our resolutions. The financial system is flawed: investors have a lot of money, and this gives them a lot of power, but they don’t necessarily leverage that power for the good of the planet. We present financial arguments that highlight how their support for our or similar initiatives aligns with their best interests, including their fiduciary duties and risk management practices. Our ultimate goal is to support investors in using their shareholder power to compel oil and gas companies to drive down emissions because it is in the best long-term financial interest of their entire portfolio and the company.
What kind of challenges do you face?
Our job isn’t easy. Influencing investors and oil and gas companies presents significant challenges. Over the years, we’ve developed an approach that involves financial arguments as to why investors should be supporting resolutions of the kind we push for, which we found out work much better than social arguments. When engaging investors we tend to mention fiduciary duties and the risks their portfolios are subject to as the climate crisis exacerbates. We highlight potential loss of return when the climate crisis devastates the global economy as well as loss of clientele, because when people become aware their pension funds invest in oil and gas, they usually want some questions answered. These financial arguments help us achieve our goals.
Although we have developed compelling financial arguments to support our resolutions, some investors think they must choose between short-term returns and climate action. This is a false dilemma. Investors’ focus on returns, coupled with misleading information on how companies perform on climate, results in fluctuating support for our resolutions. This fluctuation was witnessed in 2022 and 2023, where high portfolio returns thanks to high oil and gas profits seemed to have swayed the votes of formerly supportive investors.
However, we continue to overcome these obstacles by educating investors about the risks posed by the climate crisis and encouraging them to consider the ethical and medium and long-term financial implications of their investments. We strive to make our impact more visible by collaborating with media and amplifying research from partner organisations, showcasing the actions and behaviours of oil and gas companies and their investors to encourage greater awareness and urgency for climate action.
How do you connect with the global climate movement?
Follow This collaborates with various organisations and networks that share similar goals. We work closely with groups that engage investors or companies using similar tools. Our collaborations include joint webinars, statements and letters, ensuring a united front in the fight against climate change. We also have partners who we work with in the background to lend our support and expertise. I think our resolutions are quite powerful for the overall movement. For example, in a case brought against Shell, our resolution was used as evidence of the company discouraging investors from being proactive on climate. We have also contributed to the advancement of the transition of and emissions reductions at Shell over the years of our engagement.
Moreover, we actively contribute to the global climate movement by sharing our resolutions and research with the media. This helps raise awareness about the actions of oil and gas companies and amplify the work of our fellow activists and scientists. By building connections with media personnel, we ensure that our message reaches a broader audience and influences public opinion and policymaking.
Can you share a success story with us?
2021 was a monumental year for Follow This. Prior to that we didn’t file any resolutions at US companies due to some regulations imposed by the US Security Exchange Commission (SEC). This meant we couldn’t include climate requests on shareholders’ ballots. We worked a lot, did a lot of research and found a way through. Even the SEC cited our resolution as an example of how asking companies to make commitments on climate is not necessarily prescriptive or micro-managerial.
This changed the way the SEC proceeded with climate resolutions. Notably, when our resolutions were passed, they received a majority votes, signalling substantial investor support for acting on climate issues. Although decisions in the USA are not binding, the high percentage of investors on our side has sent a powerful message to companies about the importance of climate action to its shareholders.
Thanks to the votes of institutional investors for Follow This climate resolutions, BP, Chevron, Equinor, Phillips 66 and Shell reluctantly set goals to reduce their scope 3 emissions. These are emissions that are not directly produced by a company or as a result of activities from assets owned or controlled by a company, but by others that a company is indirectly responsible for, up and down its value chain.
What priority issues do you expect to see addressed at COP28?
We hope that the elephant in the room, which is the real need to almost halve emissions by 2030, is finally addressed. To achieve this, fossil fuels need to be replaced by renewables on an unprecedented scale. We therefore expect at least some sort of plan, model or commitment laying out how each country will move past fossil fuel production and use. This is something we discussed last year with our partners as a key topic, but apparently it wasn’t on the previous COP’s agenda. Every day there is increasing evidence of the hazardous nature of fossil fuels as a cause of extreme weather events, so the time is now.
Admittedly, it’s hard to have expectations with COPs. There’s a lot of green publicity around this year’s event but it really can go either way. We want to see commitments on cutting fossil fuels or at least plans for a transition, and making sure this transition is a fair one.
The reality is harsh and we are running out of time. We hope to see that sense of urgency in the decisions made.
Do you think COP28 will provide enough space for civil society?
Giving people a voice is incredibly important, which is why we have a membership community – people must have a say and a choice on what their future will look like. Governments and businesses may prioritise elections or profits, often neglecting the human aspect and the need for a sustainable world. Civil society’s presence ensures that the concerns of communities affected by climate change are heard and considered. It’s important to have other voices at the table, especially of those who feel the brunt of the consequences of climate change.
However, we have concerns about COP28’s location in the United Arab Emirates, a major oil and gas producer. This raises questions about whether our voices will be heard effectively, as reducing fossil fuel production may not align with the host country’s interests. We had the same issue during last year’s COP, held in Egypt. How can people feel free to voice their concerns regarding oil and gas within such contexts?
To an extent, I’d say it’s all quite performative and typically full of empty discussions. It is also somewhat ironic to have delegates take the most polluting means of transportation to converge from all over the world at a conference to discuss climate change.
It is clear we are stuck in this system of rewarding incremental steps, even if those steps don’t take us where we need to go. Therefore, we can only hope for the best, but I’m not super optimistic. I do acknowledge that we do need to start somewhere, and what COP28 can do is open the conversation, even knowing that having it in an oil-and-gas country may jeopardise the outcomes. We remain committed to occupying the space and voicing our concerns.