The fossil fuel divestment movement has grown at an unprecedented rate. Cities, universities, religious institutions and philanthropic organisations have between them already shifted over two billion dollars away from fossil fuel companies,  standing together to send the message that a business-as-usual approach to climate change is no longer acceptable. Now, the movement is moving into a new phase as it receives endorsements from high-profile figures and commitment from prestigious organisations.

The campaign is the latest attempt to tackle our excessive greenhouse gas emissions, which 97% of scientists have agreed are causing global warming. The problem is that in order to keep the global increase in temperature below the internationally agreed limit of two degrees Celsius, 80% of the proven reserves of coal, oil and gas must be left in the ground. The fossil fuel industry, however, continues to ignore this fact. There have been no signs of a let up of its extraction programmes, it invests heavily in the continuing search for new reserves and has done little to look at alternatives.

The premise of the ‘Fossil Free’ movement is simple: ‘If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.’ Campaigners are pushing values-driven organisations to remove their investments from an industry that poses a direct threat to their missions or to the public good and instead use their money to fund renewable energy technologies and a sustainable economy. The intention is to create a stigmatisation effect similar to the one that helped end apartheid in South Africa and tobacco advertising, reducing the lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry and opening the market for renewable energy solutions.

Critics maintain that the divestment campaign is ill-judged and will not cause significant financial harm to the fossil fuel companies because their profits are determined primarily by the demand for their products rather than their stock prices. The investment portfolios of individual organisations are also relatively small compared with the mighty fossil fuel industry, as the president of Brown University in the US highlighted when he explained their decision not to divest.

It is true that the fossil fuel industry is not likely to be bankrupted any time soon. However, the ability of the movement to remove the industry’s ‘social licence to operate’ by bringing climate change to the top of international agendas should not be underestimated. A recent report by the influential Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University concludes ‘The outcome of the stigmatisation process, which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has now triggered, poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain. Any direct impacts pale in comparison.’

As the movement grows, so does its influence. After being kicked off by the prominent environmentalist Bill McKibben of 350.org, it gathered momentum across the US last year before crossing the Atlantic in November. In the US, 22 cities, two counties, 20 religious organizations, nine colleges and universities and six other institutions have committed to fossil fuel divestment. In the UK, the Quakers are the only group to have divested thus far, but the campaign groups People & Planet and Operation Noah are making progress.

At the front of the UK campaign are Glasgow University, whose court has formed an advisory committee to consider the case for full fossil fuel divestment, and Edinburgh University, who has opened a public consultation on their investment portfolio. Fourteen other student union councils have also passed motions in support of the campaign and ‘Fossil Free’ campaigns at 32 universities have sprung up in recent months. The Church of England also last month vowed to ‘fight the great demon of climate change’ and as a last resort remove its funds from companies that did not do enough.

In recent weeks, the movement has broken new ground as it is joined by more mainstream supporters. Students, religious groups and progressive cities are the traditional leaders in divestment and other similar movements, but now they have been joined by seventeen of the world’s largest philanthropic foundations including the Wallace Global Fund, the Russell Family Foundation and the Educational Foundation of America. In addition, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki MoonWorld Bank president Jim Kim and UN climate convention chief Christiana Figueres all called for fossil fuel divestment during February, signalling a move towards wider market action.

Hopes of campaigners are high. As one organisation after another makes a clear commitment to their willingness to transition to a low-carbon economy, pressure on leaders and wider society alike to take more serious action mounts. The question is now what exactly this action will look like.