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Ending UK support for fossil fuels overseas: key lessons from a big policy win

By Adam McGibbon, 30th June 2021

A few days before Christmas 2020, a group of exhausted climate campaigners dialled into an online meeting with senior UK civil servants.

For three years, we had been campaigning to end the British Government’s multi-billion financing for fossil fuel projects overseas. Throughout 2020, the campaign had intensified, hitting the headlines many times, derailing the Government’s climate spin, personally embarrassing the Prime Minister and creating an ever-growing chorus of opposition.

Given the false dawns that preceded the meeting, it came as a shock that we had won. The civil servants told us that the UK Government was about to announce an end to its finance for fossil fuels overseas, becoming the first major country in the world to take this step.

From 2016-20 alone, the UK Government’s support for fossil fuels overseas amounted to at least £21 billion, so this is a major and historic move away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy. The commitment was world news, covered by media from The New York Times to The Sydney Morning Herald and everywhere in between. Forbes said the UK’s decision was a ‘major shift in public policy’ while Nick Mabey, the CEO of environmental think tank E3G, said the move ‘sets a gold standard for what serious climate action looks like.’

Even more exciting was the ‘domino effect’ that the victory produced. About a month after the UK Government announced its plans, the new Biden Administration announced similar moves. The Scottish Government followed suit too, and European Governments are said to be developing their own similar plans. This domino effect – which we anticipated – meant that the campaign’s impact was being multiplied many times over. Despite there still being much to do (not least, the need for a just and managed phase-out of the UK’s domestic oil and gas industry), this was a huge win.

From a funder’s perspective, this was an unusual campaign. There was never a funding application to run the campaign or put the coalition together. It came about organically, with campaigners working on similar areas finding each other, and squeezing in the work alongside their existing responsibilities. It’s likely that three years ago, if a funding application had been submitted to set the campaign up and convene the coalition, the objective would have been considered unrealistic or impossible to achieve.

Some of the key factors in the success of this campaign were:

Support for core costs: The campaign had very low project costs. But what was crucial to its success was the core funding for each of the organisations involved, so that staff members had the flexibility to work on this campaign when the opportunity presented itself, and could spend the necessary time collaborating across organisations. Properly resourcing NGOs’ core costs can lead to some really big – and unexpected – wins.

Sustained, coordinated pressure, not NGOs working in silos: Sporadic campaigning had been done on the UK’s overseas fossil fuel support before. However, until this campaign, it hadn’t been performed in a sustained or coordinated fashion over multiple years. Sustained pressure coordinated across NGOs made all the difference.

Brilliant teamwork and diversity of tactics: From a highly successful parliamentary inquiry, to noisy protests and quiet words with civil servants, a key factor in our success was a broad range of tactics, and full respect given to everyone’s particular speciality. Every organisation played to its core strengths and activities (research, supporter mobilisation, advocacy with MPs, insider lobbying in government, etc.). Regular check-ins and planning sessions (despite COVID) kept everything moving.

Clear message: We avoided jargon and had a clear public message (‘stop funding fossil fuels overseas’), leaving the technical detail to discussions with government officials.

Building civil servant relationships: The work of several coalition members in building productive relationships with civil servants was a key factor in our success. This gave us an insight into what the Government was thinking, how we could respond and how we could feed in.

Finding unexpected voices: We made a huge effort to find unexpected voices that would rise above the standard ‘another NGO complains’ news story. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon supported the campaign, the Conservative Environment Network lent crucial support, and coalition members brought business voices into the campaign. Without these unexpected messengers – from the international community, from the centre-right and from business – we probably wouldn’t have succeeded.

Government vulnerability on COP26: Perhaps an obvious lesson, but the campaign really stepped up a gear after the announcement that the UK would host the UN climate summit, with the Conservative Party appearing far more sensitive to accusations of climate hypocrisy than we thought. This is a golden opportunity that won’t ever come again – and we only have a few more months of it. Let’s use it.


Adam McGibbon is a writer and campaigner. He was the coordinator of the successful campaign to stop the UK funding fossil fuels overseas. The campaign later won the ‘David and Goliath Award’ at the Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s National Campaign Awards. He is now the UK Campaign Lead for Market Forces, shifting banks away from activities that harm the environment. Twitter: @AdamMcGibbon.


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