Monday, 25 November 2013

Fossil Fuel Divestment at Cambridge University! (we hope...)

This isn't Transition Cambridge's own campaign, but a very exciting development in the spirit of Cambridge Transition-ing from fossil fuels!

In short, Cambridge University Students Union (CUSU) voted earlier this month to call campaign for “Cambridge University and its colleges to explicitly commit to pursuing low-carbon assets and withdraw their investments from companies whose main business is the extraction and/or production of fossil fuels.” Major congratulations are due to Suyin Chalmin-Pui, Ethical Chair of CUSU, Daniel Macmillan of the University's Socially Responsible Investment Campaign (CUSRIC) for this exciting development! However, the hardest fight - persuading the University colleges, bursar by bursar, to divest -  is yet to come.

Oxford University students have also begun a Fossil Free campaign...

An introduction to the burgeoning worldwide fossil fuel divestment campaign:

In August 2012 the American environmentalist Bill McKibben published an article called 'Global Warming's Terrifying New Math' in Rolling Stone magazine (the edition with Justin Bieber gazing soulfully from the front cover). In it he laid out three, critically important numbers:
1. 2 -  the maximum number of degrees Celsius the planet can warm before the risk of runaway climate change is unacceptably high, as agreed at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2010.
2. 565 - the number of gigatonnes of carbon dioxide we can release into the atmosphere to have a reasonable chance (80%) of staying below 2 degrees of warming.
3. 2,795 - the number of gigatonnes of carbon dioxide we will release if we burn all the coal, oil and gas the fossil fuel industry has in reserve (even without unconventional fuels like shale gas, tar sands oil etc.)

2,795 is roughly five times 565. Therefore, roughly 80% of remaining fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground. This would slash the value of fossil fuel companies, and they won't give it up without a fight.

The conclusion of this article is that it is critically important to confront the fossil fuel industry head on. A few facts about fossil fuel companies:
  • Just 90 companies (83 of which are fossil fuel companies) are responsible for two thirds of manmade global warming emissions.
  • Since 1998, Exxonmobil, the world's largest oil company, has been funneling millions of dollars into funding lobby groups and thinktanks which cast doubt on climate change science.
  • Exxonmobil plans to spend $37 billion a year through 2016 (about $100 million a day) searching for yet more oil and gas, with other oil companies pledging similar amounts. This is in spite of the fact that we already have enough fossil fuels in reserve to take us five times over our global carbon emissions budget, which would avoid exceeding a 2 degree rise in global temperatures (see above).
There are currently fossil fuel divestment campaigns at 308 colleges and universities, 105 cities and states, and 6 religious institutions across the world. The divestment movement has grown so fast that fossil fuel companies have publicly spoken out, condemning it as counterproductive. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you... (then you win)

At the Shared Planet Conference 2013 the UK Fossil Free movement was launched. There are now Fossil Free campaigns at the Universities of Oxford, Warwick, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, Bath Spa, UCL, East London, Norwich and Powys. And, as of  November 11th, 2013, Cambridge University!

A successful divestment campaign at Cambridge would be a huge victory in the context of the global divestment movement. Cambridge University has a £5bn endowment, making it the wealthiest university in Europe. Close on £1bn of this is invested in fossil fuel companies, including Exxonmobil, Royal Dutch Shell and BP. Much of this total is through college investments, in particular Trinity and St Johns.

However, the challenges faced by the Cambridge University Fossil Free campaign are considerable. As well as investments in fossil fuels, there are other close links between the university and the fossil fuel industry. For example, the Head of the Faculty of Engineering, Professor Dame Ann Dowling, is a non-executive director of BP. Fossil fuel companies are a heavy presence at careers fairs, and award large sums to the university in research grants. A further complication is the widespread use among University colleges of tracker funds, which automatically buy shares which will grant the best return - typically fossil fuel companies.

There are certainly questions to be asked of the divestment movement - for example, would it not be better for Cambridge University to keep shares in fossil fuel companies, and attempt to influence them towards investing in renewables? This is a valid point, and one that has been raised by academics at the University. In my view, although there are sectors of fossil fuel companies which take renewables seriously, these same companies are focusing increasingly on their core assets. Shell, for instance, ditched solar in 2009, and is now forging ahead with a project in the environmentally catastrophic Canadian tar sands, as well as in the Arctic. This can, and must stop. The science is clear, there is an absolute moral imperative to speak out, and the message must be sent in the strongest possible way.

Please sign the petition to call on Cambridge University to divest from fossil fuels:

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