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An insider’s view of a climate campaign success story

South Yorkshire Fossil Free lobbied South Yorkshire Pension Authority for six years to take its money out of fossil fuels. They tell us about their successful campaign – and what’s next.

Campaigns for South Yorkshire Fossil Free

Campaigns for South Yorkshire Fossil Free.

The last day of September. High clouds and a blue sky, but you could feel the onset of autumn. I was enjoying a couple of weeks off work to fit a kitchen. Although not really a break, it was a welcome change from the day job. More importantly, it gave me the chance to tune in to a live stream of a South Yorkshire Pension Authority (SYPA) board meeting. Boy, do I know how to enjoy myself.

South Yorkshire Fossil Free had been lobbying SYPA for the last six years to take its money out of fossil fuels. They were due to discuss the climate change policy and we had been pushing for targets and a timeframe to decarbonise by 2025. We had received some support for our position from councillors on the board and had been invited to speak at the meeting, so although I wasn’t confident, I did hope for some concessions.

But the meeting got off to a disastrous start. They were having technical difficulties and my co-campaigner Janet wasn’t able to join. Not usually one for conspiracy theories, it did seem strange to me that most people had managed to get into the meeting, although one or two others were struggling. An offer to speak at the next meeting only rubbed salt into the wound. What would be the point then? The policy was being discussed now.

After a quick call to Janet to update her, I returned to the kitchen units with a sinking feeling, only half-listening.

But my ears pricked up when Councillor Sangar challenged the authority’s position on engagement, asking, ‘When will we decide that engagement with fossil fuel companies is not working?’ Once the discussion on the climate policy got into full swing, Councillor Teal gave examples of why it wasn’t working and why none of the fossil fuel companies were aligned with the Paris Agreement. This was going better than I’d hoped, but I was reminded of the early part of the film, Twelve Angry Men, when Henry Fonda is a lone voice on a jury protesting the defendant’s innocence.

Then the fund director pitched in. He proposed that the pension fund should move to be carbon-neutral by… 2050. Better than nothing, but not by much.

What happened next took my breath away. A councillor proposed that 2050 was too late and that 2030 would be a much better target, in line with those set by local authorities. Another councillor suggested that if the officers couldn’t achieve net-zero by 2030, perhaps they shouldn’t be in the job. One by one, councillors offered their own testimony in support of the 2030 target and this was carried by the meeting without opposition.

A week later, we were sat in another co-campaigner’s garden, still in a state of disbelief. We’d been pushing for this for six years, but none of us expected such a momentous decision. Despite the fading light and a nip in the air, we were in high spirits, the usual cup of tea discarded in favour of champagne, although homemade biscuits were still on the menu.

We were enjoying reminiscing. Inflatable dinosaurs, pop-up photo booths and dressing up as cleaners had all made lobbying SYPA more fun than you would think. Although me attending the pension AGM in pyjamas (almost) and with a walking stick a few days after a hernia operation seemed to bring about the most laughs, we were starting to think about what we would do next, and what it meant for our friendship.

Our co-campaigner Kate said, “The thing that kept me going was that I actually look forward to our meetings. It’s not a chore for me. We discuss some stuff, we agree some actions, we decide who’ll do what and we still have time to enjoy each other’s company. We’ve all become friends as a result of this campaign.”

Janet M agreed, “I mean if we stop now, I’m going to miss seeing you all every other week. We might need to find another campaign to work on.”

And it was true; the real key to the success of the campaign was that we had kept going. We had worked hard and helped each other along the way. The Fossil Free Network had inspired us all, but would we have kept going without that friendship?

Fortunately, our job isn’t over. We’ve been invited to speak about the potential next steps at the coming board meeting and we’ve linked up with activists across the country to target the Border to Coast Pensions Partnership, to which SYPA belongs.

Who would have thought lobbying pension authorities could be so addictive?

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South Yorkshire Fossil Free is a member of Sheffield Climate Alliance.

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