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Fossil Free activists protesting outside the Shell Annual General MeetingAndrea Domeniconi

Environmental activists stage dramatic protest at Shell’s annual meeting

On the one hand, it would be nice if the world wasn't destroyed by climate change. But on the other... don’t people with shares in fossil fuel companies deserve a reasonable return on their investment?

Activists from Extinction Rebellion and Fossil Free London staged a protest at the fossil Shell’s annual general meeting (AGM), which took place earlier today in London. After an hour of disrupting proceedings, they tried to rush the stage, before being bundled out of the building by security guards.

As protestors gathered outside the venue, a smaller group of activists had infiltrated the meeting. Just as the company’s chairman began his opening speech, they launched into a jaunty rendition of “Hit the Road Jack”, with the lyrics changed to “Go to hell, Shell and don’t you come back no more”. From that point onwards, the interruptions came thick and fast. One protestor, Dirk Campbell, stood up and told the assembled crowd: “Your record-breaking profits are producing record-breaking floods, famines and heatwaves. We are putting you on notice that either you shut down Shell or we will do it for you.”

“Half of the meeting were protestors and 20 per cent were security,” Ashok Kumar, an academic and author who was among the infiltrators, tells Dazed. “We had singers, speeches, chants, banners, and people rushing the stage. It was a beautiful sight – pure pandemonium. Every time they thought it was finished another person stood up and disrupted.”

Simultaenously, Extinction Rebellion activists staged protests at the AGMs of Vanguard and Blackrock, two companies which are major shareholders in Shell and which spend billions investing in fossil fuel projects.

The protest comes after a wave of controversies involving the company, which has enjoyed record profits during the cost-of-energy crisis while ordinary people have struggled to heat their homes. Earlier this year, a report found that Shell, among other energy companies, has spilled 110,000 gallons of oil in the Nigerian state of Bayelsa over the last five decades – at least 254 oil spills each year. This has exacted a terrible toll on the region’s ecology and wildlife, decimated its fishing and farming communities, and exposed its population to dangerous chemicals associated with higher cancer risks and birth defects. At today’s protest, speakers from Nigeria spoke about Shell’s culpability for this environmental destruction.

The stakes of today’s meeting were particularly high. As reported in Reuters last week, there is a growing conflict within Shell between investors who want to continue drawing profit from fossil fuels and a small but vocal minority who want the company to move faster to tackle the climate crisis. As it stands, investing in renewables and low-carbon energy is less profitable than oil and gas, which means that some big investors are pushing the company to prioritise returns. In response to these pressures, the Chief Executive has suggested he will review a pledge to reduce oil output by 1.2 per cent a year by 2030. 

In other words, Shell risks going backward at a time when it urgently needs to be taking action. Earlier this month, a UN agency warned that temperatures are likely to rise by more than 1.5c within the next five years – climate scientists have warned that passing this threshold could have disastrous and potentially irreversible consequences. If we want to avoid reaching this point – as major countries pledged at the 2015  Paris agreement – there needs to be an immediate and drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But Shell and its shareholders have a powerful incentive to continue drawing as much money from fossil fuels as they can, regardless of the environmental cost. The profit motive trumps everything else, and these companies won't change unless they are forced to – we can't rely on their love for humankind.

 “Shareholder meetings are just one tool in the toolbox,” says Kumar. “Shell and every other fossil fuel profiteer needs to be shut down at every stage of production, distribution and consumption.”

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