New York moves to divest: Case study from the largest municipal pension fund in the United States

New York City is standing up for future generations by becoming the first major U.S. city to divest our pension funds from fossil fuels. At the same time, we’re bringing the fight against climate change straight to the fossil fuel companies that knew about its effects and intentionally misled the public to protect their profits. As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient.
—Mayor Bill de Blasio

For New York City, fossil fuels are no longer the future. On 10 January 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city would divest its pension funds from fossil fuel interests within five years. With the largest municipal pension fund in the United States, valued at USD 194 billion, this move positions New York City at the center of the fossil fuel divestment movement.

Divestment has gained momentum over the past decade. Around 150 cities across the world, from Berlin, Germany to Dunedin, New Zealand, have made similar commitments – but none at the scale of New York City.

New York City’s fossil fuel divestment announcement follows more than a decade of aggressive climate action. Guiding the its climate and sustainability program is One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City, known as OneNYC. OneNYC addresses climate mitigation alongside economic development, diversity and inclusion and sustainability more broadly to form an overarching resilience strategy that calls for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, compared to 2005 levels — a goal the city is on its way to achieving, having already reduced emissions 15 percent below baseline.

New York CIty also brings accountability into its climate strategy. If successful in a climate damages lawsuit against BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, the city will use those funds to build coastal protections, upgrade water and sewer infrastructure, mitigate heat impacts and organize public health campaigns.

Now, by divesting all USD 194 billion in its pension fund system, New York City is making room for more sustainable investments.  

As the first major pension plan in the United States to undergo divestment, the move raises a number of questions regarding how such a large and intricate system can responsibly divest from companies that have held firm positions in pension portfolios for decades. This case study shows cities, large and small, that the principles and processes behind fossil fuel divestment are transferable to nearly any location where the will to divest exists. The study explores why New York City initiated the process and steps the city is taking to get there.

To learn more, view web version or download the print version in pdf from ICLEI USA.