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University of Cambridge divestment agenda ‘is a crowd pleaser’?





Extinction Rebellion at the gates of Pembroke College. Picture: Caitlin Fay
Extinction Rebellion at the gates of Pembroke College. Picture: Caitlin Fay

The announcement that Pembroke College intends to fully divest from all fossil fuel investments by 2023 was greeted with jubilation, but one sentence in the college’s statement raised eyebrows.

Pembroke’s official statement appears to include the suggestion that the decision wasn’t as straightforward as it first appears.

It read: “We remain to be convinced that divestment makes any positive contribution to addressing climate change, but believe that there are many more substantive interventions that are much more significant and which the college will pursue.”

College bursar and treasurer Andrew Cates explained the nature of the debate at the college.

Writing in a personal capacity, Dr Cates said: “Divestment costs nothing, is a crowd pleaser and is relatively easy to do but looks environmentally harmful. Pembroke had so little [fossil fuel shares] it wasn’t worth arguing about of course. But there is a big assumption in some quarters that holding shares equates to environmental harm, which is not really arguable in general.

“There is general agreement that divestment from oil companies has both positive and negative impacts; one of the big negative impacts is loss of shareholder influence. The most positive one, in my view, is contributing to a coherent political movement on [the] climate emergency.”

Pembroke is formally committed to full divestment, and Dr Cates stresses that his views do not run counter to that.

Explaining his position – partly formulated during a career which included 11 years at Shell, culminating as CEO of Shell Energy 1999-2004 – Dr Cates said: “If everyone who cares about the environment divests, then the shares will be bought by climate deniers and the shareholder influence on oil companies will shift towards slash and burn.”

The suggestion was rejected by Jason Scott-Warren, a university reader in early modern literature and culture in the Faculty of English and a fellow of Gonville and Caius College.

East of England councils with £547m of fossil fuel investment have yet to act on the message. Picture: Kay Goodridge
East of England councils with £547m of fossil fuel investment have yet to act on the message. Picture: Kay Goodridge

Dr Scott-Warren, who is also a campaigner with climate action group Extinction Rebellion, said: “The Divestment Report prepared by Ellen Quigley for the university, based on peer-reviewed data and itself peer-reviewed, comprehensively dismissed the argument that shareholder engagement is an effective strategy. There’s no such thing as ‘shareholder influence’ in a world where most investment is indirect, ie handled via third-party fund managers.”

Dr Quigley was unavailable for comment but, despite the sell-offs by University of Cambridge colleges, divestment remains a target rather than a reality for many organisations.

Local councils in the East of England still carry huge funds invested in fossil fuels through local government pension funds.

Freedom of information requests by environmental campaigners found that, despite decreases in recent years, local government pensions in the East of England held £547m of investments in fossil fuel firms in the 2019/20 financial year.

Cllr Paul Smith of Sawston Parish Council said: “Pensions in the East of England absolutely must stop their investments in these companies as soon as possible and invest in the social good – it is the morally and financially correct thing to do.”



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