Interview: Charlie Jeffery, Senior Vice Principal University of Edinburgh

The University is in the midst of a sweeping review of its investment policies.  Leading the review is Professor Charlie Jeffery, Senior Vice Principal.  The Student’s Rosie Barrett sat down with him to talk about drones, climate research, and divestment campaigns.

Some sentences have been edited for clarity.  Interview conducted by Rosie Barrett on Wednesday, October 14, 2015.

The Student: What exactly is Edinburgh Action for Climate, and why is it important?

Charlie Jeffery: Edinburgh Action for the Climate is two things. One is it’s very much focused in the first instance on the UN Summit in Paris later this year and it’s our attempt to harness expertise to contribute to that summit through both academic staff and students.  But I think that there’s a bigger and a wider purpose as well.
That’s a nice prompt but I think that we make a tremendous contribution in various ways to understanding and tackling the challenges of climate change. One I think we can do better is to harness that into one place.

So for example we’ve got great climate [scientists].  We’ve got a colleague who contributes to the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] as a co-author. We’ve got great expertise on renewables. We’ve got this fantastic experimental pool up at Kings Buildings, which can simulate any ocean condition and make us start thinking about how to harness the energy flows.

Likewise in wind, very strong – solar energy which is the real biggie in terms of potential. If you can capture that, then the world’s energy charges become put into a very different place if you can do that in a commercial level.
So we have all of that, this fantastic expertise in technology, and then we have areas of expertise in other areas of the university which is about policy, it’s about regulation, it’s about law but also about behaviour.

So at the behavioural end, the kind of things that you and I do, they can have as much impact on the big cause of climate change that is carbon emissions as can big shifts into renewables, cos if you use less then you produce fewer emissions and we could, you and I could I am sure, find lots of ways of using less if we thought about it and that’s where research into behavioural dimensions that underpin the ways of addressing climate change is also important.
So we have all that and we have through that a fantastic capability, not just to produce new discoveries or to make technology commercially viable – we have tremendous potential to reach policy audiences and to persuade them that they might do things differently.

They’re also in many cases involved in campaigning around climate issues and there’s an obvious opportunity to harness some of that passion and connect it to these wider policies and intergovernmental discussions.  So we hope to take a group of students to Paris and give them an experience of how that kind of negotiation works. Because it’s messy, it’s a combination of the different vested interests that exist in different countries, and it’s a big challenge to keep the higher level ambition as one which everyone is working towards.

I think having some students there, delivering some passion, whilst also understanding that challenging political process is a great thing for them and their futures.

So, talking about students and their passion, do you think that the criticism you get from the student activists in terms of the investment portfolio is fair?

CG: One of the really interesting developments over the last year has been around our commitment to the UN Principles on Responsible investment, which the university signed up to a few years ago and we spent some time thinking about how to turn that into practice, lots of student engaged in it and their representative body EUSA took up some of those concerns and asked the university formally to consider them. And it did, and the outcome didn’t please everyone but I think it shifted the university into a significantly different position – and I think that’s a rather nice example of how students can raise issues which then get deliberated as university policy and come out the other end with some significant change.

Could you talk more about the University’s ongoing review of its investment portfolio and what people can expect to see going forwards? Are you going to divest more?

CG: If you go and look at the UN Principles on Responsible Investment, there are a number of them, they don’t actually mention the word divestment. It’s much more a sense of the positive choices that can be made rather than the negative choices. We’ve certainly moved our position on certain aspects of our fossil fuels. But I think the concern now is to move us into a different place where we think about where we should be investing.

And  that might have consequences if the portfolio shifts for other areas, but I think that’s probably much more consistent with the UN principles and the kind of discussions we’ve been having.

Now working out what that means, working out how that works through as they call it investment products (the financial vehicles into which the university puts its endowments) is a fascinating process.  Those investment products are changing over time,  reflecting some of the pressures we see coming from other campaigns and student campaigns.

So you find products that include certain things and don’t include other things.  And I think there’s an interesting discussion for the university to have about positive investment choices, as the market for products for which to invest your money become more diverse.

So what do positive investment choices look like? Could you give some examples?

CG: Well for example, you know, we’ve had a recent discussion about armaments.  There are some products which do not include the kind of armaments that we have singled out.  And that in a sense makes the process of positive investment easier if the market is already anticipating it.

There are other areas as well: obviously tobacco is [an example] where there are products which enable you to invest in a range of companies but certainly not those companies.  That’s an issue from the past and I think that’s increasingly going to be a way of thinking about responsible investment in the future.

In regards to armaments, the university does not believe drones constitute controversial weapons. Could you explain why this is? What’s the difference between a controversial weapon and a non-controversial weapon?

CG: What we’ve done in that context, is to look at the practice which is now rather widespread in UK universities, which picks up on a number of definitions of controversial weapons. The one we’ve taken is [from the organisation] Sustainalytics, and the distinguishing feature of them is their lack of discrimination in their effects.

Now you mention drones. We’ve had that discussion at other points in the university and there is a wider discussion about how technologies which can be used to produce military drones can also be used to produce drones for other purposes.

Now one of the big things you hear about these days [which is] a bit trivial, is that Amazon would like to deliver by drone.  But I think, more seriously, some of the ways in which climate change can best be monitored is through the use of drones, carrying the instruments that can help us to understand the dynamics of climate change.

[So there are] military drones on the one hand, but the technology enables other uses and that’s the issue that the University needs to grapple with. It’s not simply a military application of particular technologies.

And yet the University has deep investments in Meggit PLC, a company that manufactures drones that are used in Afghanistan and implicated widely in civilian deaths.   They also sell weapons to Bahrain, which has a record of human rights violations, so in that respect, those investments are not always going towards positive uses.

CG: We’ve taken an approach which is to think about the centre of gravity for particular companies, as is widely the case across the university sector.  Companies do not simply produce military products: they divide different kinds of products.  I know some of the dividing lines on this can get very finely wrought, and they appear to move away from a black and white understanding, but I’m afraid that’s often where the world is.

So do you think you can justify the Afghanistan drones with their more positive uses?

CG: We’re looking at the balance of what companies do, and there are other companies that have been called into that conversation.  Not necessarily companies with The University of Edinburgh: companies like Rolls Royce which produce technologies that can be used for military uses but can also be used for what we would understand [as] every-day purposes.

So would you be reviewing those investments or are you sticking by them?

CG: What we’re doing is moving on to a new phase in our discussion, which is about that focus on positive investment decisions.

So, unlikely to divest?

CG: We are going to move into that phase around positive investment decisions.  Now, that might mean changes in the balances of the portfolio over time, that reflect the availability of different kinds of products in the markets over time.  But that’s the direction we’re headed in: “How can we use the investments that we have for purposes which produce more general benefit?”

You were saying how it’s pretty standard across all universities to use these products.  Why do you think that Edinburgh is having more of a spotlight on it? Is there a more engaged student activism movement?

CG:  I doubt that some other universities would agree with that statement. They probably find they have very active student bodies.

I think that Edinburgh is a university which figures in these debates because we are in a pioneering position in many respects. We were the first  [UK university] to think of the UN Principles of Responsible investment, and it is still a process in which we enact that commitment.  But I think that when you take the lead, you get looked at.

What motivated you to sign the UN Principles of Responsible Investment?

CG: I think that’s part of a process which has been present within the University for a long time: considering carefully about the kinds of investments that are made. I think we had people at that time—a bit before my time— that were part of the senior team, who had the drive and the vision to say: “Well this is important, and this says something about the kind of university we are and want to be.”

Do you think that the pressure to divest from fossil fuels and arms companies poses a threat to the university’s financial security? How can the university strive for responsible investment whilst also securing the university’s financial future?

CG: If you didn’t pursue any sense of a responsible investment whatsoever, you could perhaps invest your money in activities that would return more to the University than the current set. But I don’t think that’s where you’d want to be. So there’s always a trade-off between the potential returns or the potential risks with a set of investments you have to think about.  Or a narrower set if you exclude some which you have to think about: if one of the ambitions is through those investments to produce interest in those investments which gets fed into things like funding student scholarships.

Now, we want as many student scholarships as we can possibly have to enable as many students from different backgrounds to participate at the university.  [But] there’s a tension there, and we have to negotiate that tension because we cannot simply be indiscriminate in the way that we invest our money.  Even if that were to bring benefits to students, it would have other things to attached to it.  I think that process is one which evolves over time.

You know, there have been big discussions about investments in the past, some about Apartheid South Africa, some about tobacco. Things move on, other things come into the spotlight as being challenged by some as whether or not they’re legitimate, and that reframes the debate.  And you have to think about how that reframes the debate and how you respond to it.

University of Edinburgh People and Planet have claimed that the University’s new armament’s policy was a “half-hearted attempt showing no real commitment” and that the university was “once again flouting its moral obligations”. Could you respond to those comments?

CG: Well I don’t agree, clearly, with those comments. The way in which decisions are come to is after serious consideration of the issues. The results of that deliberation don’t necessarily produce the agreement of all concerned. We saw, for example, around the discussion around fossil fuels that there were some parts of the University that were not in favour of any kind of divestment whatsoever. So you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

In 2010, The University Action for Climate outlined plans to reduce emissions by 29 per cent by 2020 – how is the University going with that?

CG: Yeah, we’re not meeting that. But in large part, that’s because the University has grown so much. Carbon emissions relate directly to activity and things like the amount of buildings we have and therefore the need to heat and power them.  The university has grown not least to provide new facilities for climate change and to provide sustainability, so there’s a bit of a bind there. I think that the relative figures are edging down but the absolute figures are going up.

So we’ve clearly got much, much more to do than we’ve yet achieved and we’ve got to prompt.  We want to deal [with that] with technology.  And I think some of the way we’ve developed combined heating and power systems, which use energy much more efficiently—for example than having a boiler in every building—those technological solutions are really important.

But it’s also behavioural stuff: getting people to think about energy they’re using at work or think about energy they’re using getting to and from work.  I think one of the things our department has done is to provide prompts to all sorts of parts of the university to think in different ways and to change their behaviour.

How can the University, with its comparatively small investments, influence huge international corporations?

CG: Comparatively small?—they’re quite big! Well it’s interesting: there was significant engagement from some of those companies from which we did divest which was at a senior level. So it’s taken seriously. It’s clearly on the radar of the senior levels of companies.  And I think that signifies some capacity to influence.

I think we’d like to do that more generally.  And I think some of the things we did in our fossil fuel report, which have been largely neglected because focus was on other things, were really quite innovative in the process of benchmarking in whatever industry around carbon emissions and looking to stimulate the of financial products which would favour the better performers in particular industries.

Now that’s going to depend on different things; the market’s got to go in the same way. But if other universities like this and others begin to think in that way and to get their meaning communicated to companies, which we do as a manner of course through our investment managers, then I think that’s a real lever for change.

What would you say are the university’s most noteworthy achievements so far in tackling climate change and what are the biggest challenges you face?

CG: I think of the most notable achievements, one is easily measurable and one is less so.  One is what our research delivers, because if we didn’t have leading-edge research around carbon capture or renewable energies or around environmental regulation or around behavioural change – some of which gets applied in practice as commercial applications or change in ways that government do things or the way individuals do thing- that is a really really tangible contribution to the ways of dealing with climate change.

I think the second and less easily vapourable is being a university which prompts reflection amongst its students. For various ways, it’s difficult to get to an exact figure, but a pretty good proportion of our students have some course or other, or access to courses certainly, which deal with sustainability issues.  And I think that’s a kind of export from the university as those students go out and embark on their careers.  And it may well change the way they approach some of the issues that they have to deal with or have to decide upon in those careers, and [it’s] not very easily measurable.

But if we’ve got 32,000 students at the university and something like half of them has some kind of course that deals with sustainability and encourages them to think about it – that’s a pretty big chunk of people going out every year into whatever follows that have got that capacity to understand some of the challenges that some of the challenges that face us and what to do about those challenges.

Is there anything else that would want to add?

CG: Nah, I think that was quite a lot.

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