University officials delay key divestment decision

The University of Edinburgh Central Management Group (CMG) has delayed a final decision on fossil fuel divestment until next month, according to University officials and participants at its meeting this week.

The meeting on Tuesday had been highly anticipated for the release of a three month report by the CMG on recommendations for University divestment, following months of discussions and six rounds of talks by the Fossil Fuel Review Group between November 2014 and April 2015.

But in presenting its report, which the University has declined to make public, the CMG deferred from making any ultimate decisions.  Instead, a final resolution will be scheduled for May 11th at the meeting of the University Court.

The report was previewed by Tasha Boardman, Vice President of Services of Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA), and Briana Pegado, President, both of whom were present as student representatives at the CMG meeting. 

But specific details remain elusive.  Under a University confidentiality agreement, neither Boardman nor Pegado are permitted to release the report or discuss its details.  The University plans to keep the report confidential until after the final decision is made at the Court in May, a move many campaigners criticised for a lack of transparency.

Though Tuesday‘s meeting was officially inconclusive, the report from the Fossil Fuel Group did make recommendations to divest in some, but not all, of the areas requested by activists, The Student has learned.

Activists familiar with the report told The Student that divestment from coal and tar sand extraction, but not natural gas, is on the table.  While the specific reasons for omitting natural gas were unclear, the report reportedly cited “lack of alternatives” as its rationale.

The University declined to comment on why the report was being kept confidential.

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‘A significant step forward’

Campaigners Fossil Free UK welcomed the speculated move, calling it “a significant step forward for the long-running Edinburgh People & Planet campaign”, but expressed concerns that “the recommendation [to divest just from coal and tar sand extraction] does not go far enough.”

The meeting was preceded by a ‘Twitter storm’, organised by pro-divestment campaigners. The Twitter storm saw large numbers of pro-divestment students and staff tweet ‘#EdUniFossilFree’ until the hashtag was trending in Edinburgh.

Campaigners also organised a fake oil spill and ‘die-in’, lying with placards on a black canvas outside Old College, where the meeting was being held.

Senior Vice Principal Charlie Jeffery defended the university’s gradual approach to the issue in a statement following the CMG meeting: “The University of Edinburgh was the first university in Europe to commit to the United Nations Principles of Responsible Investment. Since then, we have carried out a consultation process involving students, staff and alumni to help determine how we should best take forward our commitment to responsible investment.

Professor Charlie Jeffery, Senior Vice Principal

Professor Charlie Jeffery, Senior Vice Principal

 “Subsequently, following a request from our Students’ Association, the University set up a Fossil Fuels Review Group to consider the case for divestment of University assets from fossil fuel companies.

“The Fossil Fuels Review Group included a Vice President of the Students Association, academic experts from the School of GeoSciences, the School of Law and the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, a member of the University’s Investment Committee and senior University managers.

“Following careful consideration of evidence, the Fossil Fuels Review Group provided a number of recommendations in a substantial report on the issue. The Central Management Group has received and considered the report of the Group and it will now be forwarded to the University’s governing body, the University Court, for decision at its meeting on 11 May.”

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‘A simple and necessary action’Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 11.00.44

The Twitter storm and Fossil Fuel Review Group recommendations are the culmination of months, and for some, years of campaigning.

Divestment campaigners People & Planet, alongside academics, students and EUSA figures, have been encouraging the University of Edinburgh to divest from fossil fuels and arms companies since the Fossil Free movement began in 2012.

The Fossil Free movement has been described as the “fastest-growing divestment movement in history.” Since its founding, “thousands” of people and institutions have agreed to divest.

This includes a number of American universities, and a couple of others around the world. The University of Glasgow, however, was the first European university to announce a withdrawal from fossil fuel investment in October 2014. It was later followed by the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and the University of Bedfordshire.

The University of Edinburgh, which has the UK’s third-largest endowment fund at £230 million and directly invests at least £8.6 million in fossil fuel companies with a further £5.9 million towards fossil fuel services, was expected to be among the first wave of European universities to divest. Edinburgh’s signing of the UN Principles of Responsible Investment was seen as a positive indicator by supporters of divestment.

Peter McColl, University Rector 2012-15

Peter McColl, University Rector 2012-15

However, campaigners were disappointed when university authorities delayed an official decision.

In January, then-rector Peter McColl blasted university authorities in comments to The Student, calling continued investment “immoral” and “very risky.”

McColl cited falling oil prices as an illustration of this risk, saying: “The news that the University’s holdings in fossil fuels have diminished by over £4m in the past 6 months shows how risky these investments are. Divesting from fossil fuels is right both morally and financially. It’s time to do it now.”

In March, fifty-five academics and staff at the university signed a pro-divestment petition and handed it to Senior Vice-Principal Jeffery. It called for “a simple and necessary action: divestment from fossil fuels”, and further criticised Principal Timothy O’Shea’s continued postponing of a decision.

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‘Potential negative consequences’

Despite such support, some areas of the university have expressed significant concerns at the prospect of divestment.

Earlier this week, the School of Engineering’s submission to the Fossil Fuel Review Group in March was made public, presenting a “unanimous view” that “the potential negative consequences of any degree of disengagement by the University from fossil fuel-related activity are incalculable, for the School of Engineering and its students, and hence for the University as a whole.”

Head of School Hugh McCann warned the Review Group of the harm divestment could do to engineering students in Edinburgh: “The School of Engineering is undergoing rapid expansion at the present time, some of which is intimately connected with fossil fuels, such as combustion engines, and some explicitly directed at alternative technologies, such as renewable energy and biomass conversion to road fuels.

“It is of the utmost importance that we are seen by industry to be balanced and credible in our approach to these matters.”

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‘An oversight from university governance’

Despite hints of progress behind the scenes, student activists and representatives expressed frustration with the decision making process and its transparency.

Following the meeting, Vice President Services Boardman told The Student: “I’m very, very disappointed that they haven’t taken a decision, because we had been misled to believe that a decision would be taken.”

She continued: “This is an oversight from university governance. I think the meeting was quite positive and there doesn’t seem to be too much debate around the recommendations made around the paper, and hopefully that will follow through when it’s put to court, and hopefully it will be a really successful meeting.

“I don’t think the university are going to not do anything. I think the University are going to take some action.”

Speaking to The Student before the outcome of the meeting was known, Miriam Wilson, campaign coordinator for Fossil Free UK, expressed similar dissatisfaction with the delay in the decision.

“It was due to be discussed today, there’s been a working group meeting and considering the divestment proposal for months now, and the students have been expecting a decision or some kind of recommendation today,” she said.

“So it would be hugely disappointing and very frustrating if no decision or outcome comes out of the meeting today.”

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A group of Fossil Free campaigners gather before a ‘die in’ protest against fossil fuel investment

Former EUSA VPS, current Vice President Communities at NUS Scotland and prominent pro-divestment campaigner Kirsty Haigh agreed, saying: “It’s absolutely crucial that the university do no give into big fossil fuel companies and flout their moral obligations.

“Full divestment from fossil fuels is the only responsible action. The University shying away from this and choosing to not divest fully is continuing to fund climate chaos. Our futures are too important to be gambled away for university profit.”

Speaking to The Student on the University’s approach, Haigh said: “This is just a further lack of transparency. They’re just hiding even more from the students than what is going on, keeping it all behind closed doors. The whole reason they’re doing this is because students have asked them to do it, but now they’re just kind of hiding it.”

Spokespersons for People and Planet, the parent organisation of Fossil Free, told The Student the group is filing a Freedom of Information Act request in the hope of obtaining the report before the University Court meeting on May 11.

But it remained unclear whether the request would be granted in time, given the allowed statutory processing period of 20 working days.

A University spokesperson declined to comment on its confidentiality protocols.

Despite their disappointment, activists were reluctant to draw broader conclusions from the transparency issues.

Asked by The Student whether they boded poorly for the success of the divestment movement, Haigh said: “It’s hard to tell. It’s clear they’re worried about the public reaction to what they’re going to say, but it’s hard to tell what that means other than a lack of transparency and democracy in decision making.”

A working group to look into divestment from another controversial area, the arms industry, is expected to be set up in the summer.

Headline photo credit: Urte Macikenaite

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