“Make It Happen” was an RBS slogan that meant far more than they intended. In the mid-2000s activists had spent years of fighting oil spills, pipelines and mega coal mines and the damage they cause. When they began to look deeper into how these projects came about they found that, more often than not, it was banks like RBS who provided the money to make it happen.

Back in 2007 RBS boasted “Whether your oil and gas finance requirements are straightforward or complex, RBS will bring its broad and deep experience of the hydrocarbon sector to bear on them”, and “the thing that makes us different is that we are a truly oil and gas bank.” In case you missed the point, they promoted their services on the website www.TheOilAndGasBank.com.

London-based group Platform started the charge on RBS in a report entitled ‘The Oil & Gas Bank‘ by Mika Minio-Paluello published with the support of Friends of the Earth Scotland, People & Planet, NEF and Banktrack.

Minio-Paluello set it out: “the bank is intimately involved in transforming the carbon locked in oil and gas reservoirs thousands of metres underground into atmospheric carbon dioxide – the main cause of climate change. If carbon dioxide molecules had corporate tags of responsibility, the atmosphere would be filled with RBS logos.”

Startlingly, the report found that RBS was responsible for considerably more carbon emissions than the whole of Scotland.

Starting with a bang

From the very beginning the campaign was diverse and exciting. In Autumn 2007 student network People & Planet began meddling with RBS’ freshers week promotions and UK direct action network Rising Tide organised 36 actions on a single day.

Credit: Edinburgh People and Planet

In Bristol ‘polar bears’ were arrested blocking access to RBS’ corporate HQ and in Edinburgh the doors of six separate RBS branches were glued shut. In Norwich activists reported: “When staff showed up for work this morning they found themselves locked out, and gathered opposite the branch to see what would happen. Soon after, 6 activists from Norwich Rising Tide turned up with leaflets and banners reading ‘RBS: Financing Climate Change’ and ‘Closed for a Total Re-think’ …after our 500-strong leaflet stash had been exhausted, we decided to call it a morning.” (RBS action round up 15/10/2007 )

In the following Spring, students from across the UK converged on RBS’ glitzy Annual General Meeting to put “RBS on trial” for their climate crimes outside, reading testimony from First Nations activists in Canada and dressing as various threatened ecosystems.

People & Planet groups also began getting motions passed to force their student unions to stop banking with RBS and Natwest, and to pressure their universities to follow suit, with considerable success. RBS took note, shutting down TheOilAndGasBank.com and affirming their belief in climate change, stressing in-branch efforts to cut emissions.

As it turned out, all of this was something of a foreword.

Economic Meltdown

As it turned out, the climate crisis wasn’t the only catastrophe RBS had been fuelling. Investments in sub-prime mortgages and a series of wildly foolish takeovers had left the Bank, Europe’s second largest, deeply in debt and on the brink of default. CEO Fred Goodwin made the call to the Chancellor and within weeks the UK Government had agreed to buy most of the bank for £20 billion – the first of many historically-huge handouts.

Everything had changed. Instead of stock holders demanding short-term profit the UK Government were now direct owners of one of the world’s largest investment banks – a Government that had just passed a new law to tackle climate change and would shortly create a new Green Investment Bank.

Climate Camp

RBS had become political, and campaigners were not ones to waste a crisis.

The powerful and energetic direct action group Climate Camp, hot on the heels of their success in challenging new coal in the UK, organised camps in the streets during 2009’s G20 meeting and on London’s Blackheath. The camps targeted the financial industry for fuelling climate change and channelled considerable post-crash outrage, including from the looser “occupy” movement.

Climate camper Amanda Grimm took part in a protest at the end of the Blackheath camp, recalling: “We met in a McDonald’s in Liverpool St. Station… then we suddenly all ran out in front of the RBS, and an actor playing Death read out a speech in a very theatrical manner, during which we all ‘died’ and stayed as still as possible until he finished. People also locked on to the doors. At the end of a long weekend of learning about the climate damage that RBS was causing it felt like we were taking some concrete action.” (Check out this report of another action during Blackheath Climate Camp)

In 2010 Climate Camp came to Edinburgh with hundreds of activists camping on the back lawn of RBS’ vast global headquarters. Mass invasions of the offices were rebuffed by heavy policing, but protests made trouble for RBS elsewhere, including when three were arrested for super-gluing themselves to block entry to a branch.

A coalition effort

The Government bailout opened the door for legal action, an opportunity seized by Global Justice Now (then the World Development Movement) and People & Planet. They alleged that in buying the distinctly oily RBS the Treasury may have broken its own rules about buying assets which align with the Government’s objectives.

A Judicial Review attempted to challenge the Government’s decision. When it passed through the initial stages the case made the front pages of the Financial Times. The Government eventually came out unscathed, cementing their position of leaving RBS at ‘arms length’.

In Spring 2010 the Government called a General Election that would fall just days after the RBS AGM. The Government’s response to the banking crisis was an election issue, and a coalition of 10 or so national human rights and environmental organisations along with local activists in Edinburgh planned a week of action.

People’s AGM

Global Justice Now and Friends of the Earth Scotland called a ‘People’s AGM’. Liz Murray was one of the event’s organisers: “The idea behind the ‘alternative’ AGM was that it would be for the public who had recently become the majority owners of RBS after the government bailout but who weren’t invited to the ‘official’ RBS AGM. So our ‘alternative’ AGM looked at the problems with the way that RBS was continuing to fund fossil fuels, and the direct impact that was/is having on communities such as the First Nations folks in Alberta as well as the climate, and the possibilities of switching investments into green energy and becoming the Royal Bank of Sustainability.”

Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, Canadian First Nation activist and tar sands campaigner spoke at the event: “UK taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent. RBS is currently financing the largest and most destructive industrial project on the planet destroying my people, my community and my traditional lands. With strong government leadership the bank should be adopting strong policies that respect free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities and ensures the protection of the environment and water.”

Alongside the ‘People’s AGM’ was a huge rally at the official AGM, as well as protests at branches across Edinburgh and slogans projected against the venue wall. Shortly afterwards a pop song was even recorded.

Under pressure from so many fronts, RBS called campaign groups in for a meeting. Although there was no immediate progress, this marked a significant change in tone. The Bank created a new sustainability department, began reporting more clearly on energy lending, and created policy statements to inform its project lending. RBS became easier to talk to, but they also got better at deflecting attacks on their activities. For the time being fossil fuel lending changed little.

An Annual Protest

In subsequent years disrupting AGMs became something of an annual activity, as campaigner Ian Thom recalls: “We walked to the shuttlebus drop off to give leaflets to people coming in to the AGM; more than one group asked us for directions without any comment on the molasses all over our faces and suits!”

Campaigners used the meetings, which had a reliable media presence, to draw attention to specific damaging projects which RBS funded. First Nation communities in Canada visited in 2011. Jasmine Thomas from the Yinka Dene Alliance told a rally: “RBS has provided finance to Enbridge, which wants to build its Northern Gateway tar sands pipelines through our territories, to carry oil through many of our critical salmon-bearing rivers. A spill will happen – Enbridge has over 60 pipeline spills each year. A single spill could destroy our way of life.”

RBS mountain-top removal AGM protests, 2013

Paul Corbit Brown, Campaigner from Keeper of the Mountain, spoke at the new lower-budget AGM at RBS HQ in 2013 to speak out against their funding of mountain-top removal coal mining: “Mountaintop removal permanently destroys air, water, soil, communities and people’s health. It has brought nothing but poverty and sickness to the communities in my home state.”

Global Justice Now took up a key role in the campaign connecting UK finance to human rights and environmental abuses. Their ‘Carbon Capital’ campaign showed how UK finance was intrinsically involved in projects like the vast Indomet coal mining project in the Indonesian rainforest.

Making progress?

Over time funding for these projects has been wound down by RBS. They agreed to withhold services to yet-to-be-built projects, such as the Abbot Point coal port in Australia in 2014, which threatened the Great Barrier Reef.

In 2016, alongside a global downturn in oil and coal prices and RBS’ general withdrawal from overseas investment banking, RBS announced its stake in fossil fuels had been dramatically cut. By 2018 it announced it would no longer provide finance to companies who derive more than 40% of their revenue from coal, and that it would completely end project finance for coal, arctic oil and the tar sands.

Taken in isolation this was a huge campaign victory. We should hold on to that thought but also be realistic about RBS’ motivations, which probably had a lot more to do with their general withdrawal from risky overseas investments than any kind of spiritual change of heart on climate change.

Creating new campaigns and winning victories

Perhaps more important than policy changes at the bank was the way in which the RBS campaign encouraged UK environmental and social justice organisations to think more critically about finance and the economy.

Student network People & Planet led this change and took it to home, launching a UK campaign for universities to go fossil free in 2013, and scoring their first victory when Glasgow University pledged to divest in 2014. At time of writing almost half of the UK’s universities have now divested, a dazzling achievement. Returning to high-street banks, People & Planet called on Barclays go fossil free, pushing them to sell their shares in UK fracking companies and taking the brave step to storm the stage of their 2018 AGM.

Following in their wake, Platform, 350.org and Friends of the Earth launched a campaign for local council pensions to divest, with groups rising up across the UK to take on the campaign. Walthamstow in London was the first to divest in 2016, and the campaign is going strong.

Returning to banking, Beth Stratford at Friends of the Earth Scotland organised a “Just Banking” conference in 2012 where speakers from trade unions to the Bank of England dissected the banking crisis and offered remedies. It spurred a number of projects.

Campaign group Move Your Money began by offering clear information on the ethical standards of different UK banks, with their ‘Go Fossil Free’ campaign encouraging thousands to switch their current accounts.
Scotland’s national debate on independence brought more radical proposals for reform to light, and Common Weal and Friends of the Earth Scotland both pushed the agenda calling for RBS to be broken up and reformed into a network of ‘People’s Banks’.

In 2016 this small alliance got backing from UK Labour and later the SNP for setting up a new national public bank, which, in the shadow of the UK Government’s privatisation of the Green Investment Bank, got Scottish Government Backing in 2017. It remains to be seen whether the Scottish Government’s public banking aspirations turn out to push meaningful reform and green investment – but public control of the banks is now firmly back in the political mainstream.

What does the future hold?

“Our self-serving ‘financial industry’ as it currently stands, is not capable of thinking sustainably over the long term. So banking and finance must be reimagined, redesigned, and rebuilt as democratic and accountable services.” (Gemma Bone and Ric Lander writing in the Scottish Left Review, 2016)

There is still much to do to see UK banking become a positive force in the battle to resist the worst impacts of the climate crisis. It is also sobering to reflect that RBS – a colossal mess of a bank that almost broke the UK economy– is still essentially unreformed and subject to much the same regulatory regime even after a decade in public ownership.

The bailout offered climate campaigners an opportunity to reform RBS, but it required the UK Government to live up to its responsibilities as owners, and neither Brown, Cameron or May’s Governments have done so. The system remains on the brink of crisis.

In 2016 former Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King warned: “Without reform of the financial system, another crisis is certain… Only a fundamental rethink of how we, as a society, organise our system of money and banking will prevent a repetition of the crisis that we experienced in 2008.”  And that was before Brexit.

As long as UK banks remain so concentrated, so profiteering and so irresponsible campaigners will need to win reform before we can achieve all those other things we need for a healthy and fair future. And yet there is much to remain hopeful about.

The dreams of those who lead radical campaigns are rarely fulfilled by individual campaigns, and taking on Europe’s second largest bank was never going to be easy. But this has been a truly vibrant and visionary endeavour.

Occupations, theatre, research, lobbying, sabotage, solidarity, bold visions and coalition compromises: the creativity spawned within the campaign schooled a generation of activists in almost every campaigning tool in the box. It made new connections between UK campaigners and those defending their land from fossil fuels around the world. It provided a focus for activist anger about the banking crisis and the cuts. And it has spawned inspiring divestment campaigns which may prove the best hope we have of breaking the power that fossil fuels hold over our future.

Afterword

Campaigning for sustainable banking and finance is very much alive today, including:
• Local campaign groups supported by 350, Platform and Friends of the Earth are campaigning for local government pension funds to divest from fossil fuels. http://gofossilfree.org/uk
• Operation Noah campaign for Churches to take their money out of fossil fuels. http://operationnoah.org/
• Common Weal campaign for reform of Scottish public finance, including promoting a public-good driven National Investment Bank and local banking. http://www.allofusfirst.org/
• Friends of the Earth Scotland is supporting Banktrack’s Fossil Banks No Thanks campaign, including challenging funding the RBS-funded Nordstream pipeline. www.foe.scot/divest
• Christian Aid campaign against bank funding of coal. https://www.christianaid.org.uk/news/big-shift-rbs
• People & Planet are campaigning for Barclays to go fossil free alongside their local campaigns against university ties to fossil fuels. https://peopleandplanet.org/divest-barclays

Thanks to Amanda Grimm, Liz Murray and Ian Thom for providing their contributions to this article.

Further reading:

A number of reports were produced detailing RBS’ investments in fossil fuels and the impact of their investments, for more information visit the RBS page at Banktrack: https://www.banktrack.org/bank/rbs

Some videos from the campaign:
2007, Edinburgh students meddling with RBS’ freshers week plans: https://vimeo.com/188865071
2009, Climate campers blockade RBS HQ, London: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czJc5cHn4mE
2010, Global Justice Now AGM projection: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9LLdloRGyk
2010, Climate Camp arrives at RBS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-j8bW7so6A
2011, ‘Wanna Pump Up the Tar Sands’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V26AyA8ZKGI

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Ric Lander

Ric Lander is Divestment Campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland.

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