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‘Divest or we escalate’, Extinction Rebellion warns University of Cambridge

As the climate activists issue a new ultimatum, Mike Scialom explores the issue of divestment.

Cambridge Zero Carbon Society action at the BP Institute last October. Picture: Mike Scialom
Cambridge Zero Carbon Society action at the BP Institute last October. Picture: Mike Scialom

Extinction Rebellion is ready for an extensive campaign next month to encourage the University of Cambridge to divest fully from investments in fossil fuel companies.

Extinction Rebellion Cambridge and Extinction Rebellion Youth Cambridge are “beginning their campaign by delivering their demands to the university and the non-divested colleges”.

The activist group add that “if divestment isn’t announced by the end of July”, they “will begin an escalating campaign of non-violent direct action until it is”.

The issue of divestment raises complex issues for the university, which has a connection to big oil dating back to 1945 when the Shell chair was created after a donation by Royal Dutch Shell to establish the Department of Chemical Engineering. Such endowments have since become normalised to the point that chemistry and earth sciences students have been handed BP-branded lab coats: today’s named professorships include the BP professorship of chemistry, the Shell professor of chemical engineering, and the Schlumberger professorship of complex physical systems. This process of normalisation last year resulted in accusations in a Cambridge Carbon Zero Society report that the university has skewed its academic model as part of the “marketisation of the British education system”.

Cambridge Zero Carbon Society is a group of students, scientists, economists, and professionals who began attempting to encourage the university to shed fossil fuel investments in 2007, out of concern for the environmental damage they cause.

The campaign seemed to be going nowhere, as the university’s underlying business model was evolving with spectacular success: the links to fossil fuel-related companies meant it was able to both accept incoming investments (or endowments) and use its wealth to invest back in the same companies - as close to a win-win situation as you get in a market economy. The model continued to evolve: in 2010, with help from BP endowments, a new professorship in earth sciences was created.

To date, since 2001, the society says the university has received more than £18m in research funding from fossil fuel companies.

The only problem, of course, has been that the planet is showing signs of catastrophic wear and tear, and in 2015 Cambridge Zero Carbon Society was relaunched, inspired by the global movement for divestment and the increasingly obvious signs that climate change was going to have a vast and negative impact on the quality of life for every living creature on Earth for generations to come. The part played by man-made emissions is undeniable: a report in The Guardian this year identified 20 fossil fuel giants linked to a third of all the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the climate crisis.

Extinction Rebellion makes their point yesterday (July 11 2020) as the divestment campaign gets added impetus
Extinction Rebellion makes their point yesterday (July 11 2020) as the divestment campaign gets added impetus

However, during this time of vast success - the University of Cambridge has £6.3bn of investments, the largest university endowment outside the US - deep links have been forged.

In October, Cambridge Zero Carbon reported that a research project “led by the director of Cambridge’s BP Institute amounted to an estimated annual value to oil production companies of between $300m to $3bn”, according to a Varsity report headlined: ‘Research at Cambridge sped up oil extraction and facilitated deep-sea drilling, new report finds’.

Cambridge Zero Carbon Society estimates that around six per cent - £377m in 2014 - is still invested in fossil fuels. (Extinction Rebellion takes ‘fossil fuels’ to mean “corporations that destroy biodiversity, the arms trade - one of the largest consumers of fossil fuels globally - and intensive animal farming”.) Estimates are difficult to confirm because the university no longer makes direct investments in such activities and details of its indirect investment portfolios are difficult to obtain.

In 2017 the university set up a divestment working group to investigate the issue and the current policy is one of “considered divestment” - a ban on direct investments but not indirect equity investments.

Indirect investments are those held in pool funds managed by a range of financial advisors. Inevitably, these funds are difficult to unpick into their individual components, as the university told Reuters in 2018 when it stated: “Disengagement from any funds that have even small fossil fuel components, or that would require Cambridge University Endowment Fund to step back from investments in alternative energy initiatives by global companies currently regarded as fossil fuel companies, would result in significant limitations on the CUEF’s ability to invest as successfully as in the past.”

Extinction Rebellion at Churchill College on July 11, 2020. Picture: XR
Extinction Rebellion at Churchill College on July 11, 2020. Picture: XR

An additional difficulty in establishing an exact accounting trail is that the investments are made by individual colleges, rather than by an entity called “the university”. To date just two Cambridge colleges - Clare Hall and Queens’ - have fully divested, five (Downing, Emmanuel, Jesus, Peterhouse and Selwyn) have started a process of divestment, and 24 colleges including Churchill, Darwin, Corpus Christi, Fitzwilliam, Girton, King’s, Magdalene, Pembroke, Trinity and Wolfson have yet to divest.

Meanwhile, the global divestment campaign has become the fastest-growing climate justice campaign in history, with $14.15tn divested from fossil fuels by 1,240 institutions and 58,000 individuals globally so far. The divestment has been led by faith-based organisations, governments, pension funds, philanthropic organisations - and educational establishments including 78 out of 154 UK universities. Some, including University College London, the University of Glasgow and York University, have pledged to divest completely. Oxford University made its historic commitment to fossil fuel divestment in April this year.

Any failure to divest carries additional concerns: the investments made by the university could become ‘stranded assets’ - worthless - if they get written down. There are signs that a mass sell-off is on the cards. These include the more obvious virtue signalling - the decisions by the British Museum and the Royal Shakespeare Company to drop BP as a sponsor - but a process of revaluing fossil fuel reserves is already under way, and could result in a third of the overall value of the reserves being written down, according to a report on oilprice.com.

And now, in the summer of 2020, there is an additional factor - the knowledge of what a simple pandemic can do to has added a new realisation of what is likely to happen next if it proves impossible to change course.

Mahoney Goodman, a member of Extinction Rebellion Youth Cambridge, said: “We are terrified by the sheer scale of the emergency we’re in and the lack of meaningful action from prestigious and supposedly forward-thinking institutions like the University of Cambridge. Temperatures were 18°C above normal in the Arctic Circle in June, and the executive director of the International Energy Agency has very recently warned the world that we have just six months left to avert our current course towards catastrophic climate change.

“This is also not just a problem for the future: there are people, most of whom are black or indigenous people of colour, already dying as a result of the climate and ecological crisis. Right now, the university is getting away with funding this crisis, which amounts to complicity in the destruction of ecosystems and countless deaths. For example, deadly heatwaves, natural disasters, and disease outbreaks are increasing in frequency due to rising global temperatures caused by the exploitative system which chains us to continuously increasing carbon emissions. We really have no time left to wait around for university bureaucracy or the vested interests of its colleges, many of which have enormous resources. We cannot and will not allow these delays to continue.”

Extinction Rebellion Cambridge
Extinction Rebellion Cambridge

Emily Ashton, an alumna of Clare College and Extinction Rebellion Cambridge member, said: “Cambridge Zero Carbon Society, other groups of Cambridge students, and the UCU [a university staff union] have been calling for divestment for over five years now. We first joined them with the launch of our youth-led Rebel for Justice campaign in January, which demanded that the university cut its ties with the fossil fuel industry. The university, of course, ignored us, but we are not going to let this be the end of the matter. We demand that they use their power, wealth and influence to positive effect, rather than perpetuating the destruction caused to humans, animals and ecosystems by fossil fuel and other extractive industries.”

To accelerate the process of divestment, the new Extinction Rebellion campaign demands that the university and colleges commit by the end of July 2020 to complete divestment, with the divestment process itself being carried out by the end of 2020.

The University of Cambridge told the Cambridge Independent: “The University of Cambridge has already cut all direct investments in fossil fuels and recruited a sustainable investment officer. In December, Cambridge extended its leadership in seeking solutions for decarbonising the global economy by co-founding the Responsible Investment Network - Universities (RINU).”

Meanwhile, through its Cambridge Zero campaign, the university has launched a major research initiative to help create a zero-carbon future, designed to “harness the full range of the university’s research and policy expertise, developing solutions that work for our lives, our society and our economy”.

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