Divestment is eminently achievable, economically viable, and environmentally meaningful; by listening to its students and fully divesting from fossil fuels the University of Edinburgh could take a powerful stance on climate change.
Protests and occupations can seem drastic and radical, but they are a frustrated last resort, born of the fact that the University’s senior management have made it quite clear that they have no interest in divesting or listening to the voices of students.
In 2014, following three years of lobbying by People & Planet (P&P), the University consulted its students with an ethical investments survey. An overwhelming majority of respondents were found to be in favour of divestment. Despite this, last May the University’s management still decided against divesting, prompting students to stage a 10-day occupation of the finance department in protest. The protesters were partially successful and the University agreed to divest from coal and tar sands (among the most carbon intensive fossil fuels) by October 2015. However, the sad fact is that all the progress which Edinburgh has made towards divestment has been a reluctant response to student campaigning. The University has done nothing of its own volition.
Despite this, the University of Edinburgh never misses a chance to flaunt its flimsy eco-credentials, or ostentatiously vaunt its environmental research. Laudable as environmental research is, it is irrelevant to divestment. And patching up its damaged reputation with green research projects in no way diminishes the need to change its inherently unsustainable investment portfolio.
There is a ludicrous hypocrisy in the idea of sponsoring climate change research with funds derived from fossil fuel extraction. It’s not enough just to research future technological solutions; if we want to stand a chance of addressing climate change we need to tackle fossil fuel emissions now.
Regardless of the scale of Edinburgh’s current investments in fossil fuels, from the beginning the ethical investment campaign at Edinburgh has not only been about withdrawing existing investments in the industry, but also to make a clear statement against the fossil fuel industry by making a public commitment to never invest in fossil fuels in the future. If Edinburgh genuinely wants to support the essential transition to sustainable energy, it needs to stop propping up the oil industry and instead put some of its ample investments into the rapidly growing renewables sector.
This is why P&P is still campaigning for Edinburgh to withdraw its remaining assets from fossil fuel companies. Last Thursday, P&P staged on overnight occupation of the Old College quad to highlight the University’s continued investment in fossil fuels, with more than 60 students turning out to show support. Senior management, however, have given no indication that they take student objections seriously.
To address a common concern, divesting from fossil fuels is not economically dangerous. In the past few years hundreds of public and private institutions have divested over £3.5 trillion pounds from fossil fuels. If the British Medical Association; the Rockefeller Foundation; the Universities of Glasgow, Sheffield, Warwick, Bedfordshire and Surrey; and the World Council of Churches have all found divestment to be in their best financial interests, the idea that Edinburgh must remain permanently shackled to fossil fuels seems perplexing at best.
Ironically, Edinburgh’s investment policy contradicts its own research. Last September, a study by the University’s own Business School, found that green funds outperformed fossil fuel investments by more than 14 per cent over a two year period. Moreover, the plummeting drop in oil prices last autumn surely put pay to any idea that oil was a stable or reliable investment. In its stubborn, feet-dragging reluctance the University seems oblivious to the terrifying urgency of addressing climate change.
The devastating effects of rising temperatures are already being felt around the world and will only get worse. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has estimated that climate change will displace 250 million people by 2050. Amnesty International has warned that if emissions are not reduced some 600 million people could face famine.
If we seriously want to avert these catastrophes, we must heed the warnings of climate scientists and avoid the crucial 2°C temperature rise. To do that we must break our century-old dependence on fossil fuels. By refusing to divest from these industries the University is becoming complicit in perpetuating anthropogenic climate change, and all the disastrous social, economic and health-related consequences that come with it.
According to the mission statement on its website, Edinburgh aims to ‘make a significant, sustainable and socially responsible contribution to Scotland, the UK and the world’. If the University truly wishes to make a sustainable and socially responsible contribution it is imperative that it puts its money where its mouth is and stops investing in the fossil fuel industry.
Last December, the Paris climate talks delivered an ambitious set of carbon reduction targets; however, there is no indication of how governments are going to meet these targets and no mechanism in place to enforce their commitments. Two weeks ago, George Osborne’s spring budget announced massive tax cuts for North Sea oil, despite oil prices continuing to decline, while the Conservative government has slashed subsidies for renewables.
Against this backdrop it is clear that public institutions must act now to ensure both sustainable jobs for within the UK, and a chance of averting the climate crisis which is already devastating vulnerable communities around the world. The University of Edinburgh is an influential, world-leading institution, and by divesting it could send a powerful message that supporting the fossil fuel industry is not acceptable.
So, Edinburgh University, let’s have no more complicity. Can we have divestment, please?
Image: People and Planet