Half of UK universities commit to fully divesting in fossil fuels

Lucy Adams reports on the commitment of half of the UK's universities to divest from fossil fuels.

Lucy Adams
10th February 2020
Image: @peopleandplanetuom Instagram
The global movement for divestment in fossil fuel companies, originally capturing attention at Toronto University and commonly referred to as the "Toronto Principle", is a direct response to the Paris Agreement’s calls for organisations to invest responsibly to cap the global temperature rise at 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels.

The Fossil Fuel Divestment campaign, spearheaded by environmental conservation charity People & Planet, has been gaining traction within UK Universities since 2012. At present, just over half of UK Universities - 79 English Universities and 2 Irish - have pledged to divest directly in companies which extract fossil fuels, such as Shell and BP.

The aim of divestment, according to the campaign group People and Planet, is to urge institutions to take responsibility for the direct implications of their choices on our social, financial and environmental landscape. Chris Saltmarsh, from People and Planet, said: "Universities not yet divested can now choose to stand with their students on the right side of history or be forever known as complicit in the crimes of climate breakdown.” It also aims to stigmatise companies which contribute excessively to carbon output, although it is contested whether these companies’ share prices have been negatively affected by the activism within universities; often they resell the shares quickly.

Newcastle places 12th on People & Planet’s sustainability ranking out of 154 Universities, but our “ethical investment” category is highlighted as the area of most concern, with a sustainability rating of just 20%.

The People & Planet organisation on Newcastle and other campuses have been pushing for Universities to divest; Glasgow University became the first to fully divest £18million from fossil fuels in October 2014, and in May 2016 Newcastle University released a statement saying “the University will aim to divest from thermal coal and oil/tar sand companies and other non-progressive oil and gas companies within five years.”

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Julie Sanders commented on current progress in February 2020: “Our divestment work has been informed by our world-leading research, and advised on throughout by our students. As of January 2020, we no longer hold any investments in fossil fuel extraction or production companies, reaching our commitment to divest a year ahead of our 2021 target. Our work does not end here, as we continue to build our wide-ranging commitments to sustainability and climate action within our investment strategy and all that we do.”

In December 2019 NUSU student council passed the motion “NUSU demands greater transparency and more regular information on Newcastle University’s investments, including fossil fuel divestment.” At the time of writing, the “Freedom of Information” section of the Newcastle University website dictates that in accordance with the Socially Responsible Investment Policy, “details of the University’s investment portfolio, detailing individual stock holdings, will be published annually (in February). In addition, a quarterly sectoral breakdown of investment data will be published (in October, December, March and June)”. However, the annual reports beyond February 2018, and the quarterly reports beyond June 2019, appear to be missing from the website.

In November 2019 Newcastle University extended its commitment to divesting from all fossil fuels, however one of the Universities’ largest investments - 2.4million in Barclays, the biggest funder of fossil fuel infrastructure in Europe - remains. Despite its progress towards divestment, Newcastle has conspicuously neglected to acknowledge or sign People & Planet's fossil-free declaration that “It currently holds no investments in extractor fossil fuel companies. It will never invest in these companies.”

Students of St John’s College in Oxford have come under fire last week for staging a protest that consisted of camping on their college lawn for 4 nights and picketing for Oxford to withdraw its £8.1million investment in Shell. This gained nationwide attention when the college retaliated by rescinding the student activists’’ access to college facilities and the Principle Bursar responded: “I cannot arrange any divestment at short notice. But I can arrange for the gas central heating in college to be switched off with immediate effect. Please let me know if you support this proposal.”

As the tension thickens in environmental debates, the commitment to showing up and appealing for organised and urgent institutional change remains unwavering, particularly on the part of young people, and the growing national campaign for fossil fuel divestment continues to encourage accountability within higher education institutions.

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