The votes are in: nearly a quarter of Barclays shareholders defied bank executives over their climate policies at yesterday’s annual meeting.


Barclays chair Nigel Higgins had asked shareholders to vote against a resolution that would commit the bank to phasing out funding for fossil fuels. The resolution was put forward by a group of shareholders, along with campaign group Market Forces, dissatisfied with the progress Barclays has made on climate and fossil fuels in particular.


However, 14% of shareholders went against Higgins’ request to vote in favour of more ambitious climate policies, and the remainder of the rebel group abstained. They represent a significant core who, even if they didn’t vote in favour, have expressed dissatisfaction with the direction Barclays is taking. But there’s no denying it’s far short of the majority needed to get the resolution through.


Even more concerning are those who voted against greater and more urgent action from Barclays. And compared to a similar resolution brought last year, shareholder support has actually dropped. Barclays is the seventh biggest fossil fuel funder in the world and increased its funding for fracking, arctic and tar sands oil by 32% in 2020. So this reluctance from shareholders to back climate action raises serious questions about their priorities.


Going back to the abstentions, it’s interesting to note which investors were part of that contingent, such as BlackRock. BlackRock is the biggest asset management company in the world, and has fingers in all sorts of banking pies, including Barclays. It’s the second biggest Barclays investor so voting for the resolution would have sent a massive signal to other shareholders and bank executives.


And, given the rhetoric from BlackRock’s boss, it should have voted in favour. Chair and CEO Larry Fink has said that “climate risk is investment risk”, and that BlackRock will offload shares in companies that don’t show clear progress on reaching net zero. He was talking about fossil fuel companies (BlackRock holds huge amounts of assets in the fossil fuel sector), but this commitment should also cover enablers like Barclays.


There’s a lot of attention on how BlackRock will vote on climate resolutions at other AGMs this year. It has already failed to vote down the chair of Wells Fargo, responsible for some atrocious financing decisions in favour of fossil fuels. Now BlackRock has abstained on a vote that could have pushed Barclays into setting clear targets for getting out of fossil fuels.


Further AGM votes are coming down the track for BlackRock, including Japanese bank MUFG as well as oil giants BP, Shell and ExxonMobil. If Fink’s recent statements aren’t just a load of old greenwash, BlackRock will be using its heft to push both the banking and fossil fuel industry in the direction of rapidly reducing the emissions they’re responsible for.


Meanwhile, work will continue to expose those Barclays shareholders who put their own short term interests over those of humanity and push them further before the next AGM. Although Money Rebellion, the finance arm of Extinction Rebellion, has pledged that there won’t be another Barclays shareholder meeting until the bank does make substantial changes to its climate approach. Whatever could that mean…?