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Opinion: University of Cambridge fossil fuel divestment - it’s not about the money...

By Jeremy Caddick

Cambridge University’s announcement last week that it would be divesting its £3.5billion endowment from fossil fuels is the culmination of years of campaigning by staff, students, alumni and local residents, but, paradoxically, for an argument that involved so much discussion of money, investment returns and the workings of the stock market, in the end it is not actually about money.

Jeremy Caddick. Picture: Keith Heppell
Jeremy Caddick. Picture: Keith Heppell

It is about credibility – the credibility of oil and gas companies and the credibility of the steps we are taking to address the climate emergency. Divestment is just the start. It shows that large institutions such as the University of Cambridge are waking up to just how much will have to change if we are to continue living on the planet.

Shell and BP and all the other massive fossil fuel companies are not going to go bust because Cambridge University withdraws its investments, but the headline “ Cambridge University to divest ” is worth far, far more than all the money involved. It says very clearly that the University of Cambridge has finally agreed with the argument that continuing to take fossil fuel out of the ground to burn is quite simply no longer acceptable. We cannot afford to carry on doing it.

As a society we must turn our backs on the companies that do it and embrace other ways of finding the energy we need. The steady loss of credibility will force companies like Shell and BP drastically to change their business models. Some have already made small steps in this direction. We need them to do much, much more.

Divestment is also about the credibility of our politics and the plans we have to tackle the Climate Emergency. Fossil fuels are so much a part of our lives that it takes a huge mental shift to imagine a world without them. Yet we have to move to such a world if we are to survive, and do it quickly. We have only a few years, but what the divestment victory demonstrates is that such a mental shift is possible.

Jeremy Caddick. Picture: Keith Heppell
Jeremy Caddick. Picture: Keith Heppell

I recall a day in September 2014 when, as a member of the Cambridge University Council, we were discussing a report about reducing the university’s carbon footprint. Innocently I asked when it would be that we would have a conversation about how the University invested its money. The response was a few moments silence and then the conversation continued as if I hadn’t said anything.

In six years divestment has moved from being unmentionable to being the only morally sound thing for a conscientious university to do. They have been years of protests and demonstrations by bodies such as Cambridge Zero Carbon and Extinction Rebellion and of collecting signatures from academics for motions to the governing body of the university.

One of these motions called, neutrally, for a report into the advantages and disadvantages of divestment. This report, by researcher Dr Ellen Quigley, was published recently and seems to have been what finally changed the mind of the university’s senior management.

But divestment is only the start. Now that we have become accustomed to making what was unthinkable into the only reasonable thing to do, we need to start on the big stuff.

Jeremy Caddick was the Green Party candidate for Cambridge in the 2019 General Election.

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