Last April the University of Oxford made the landmark decision to fully divest. Supported by both students and staff, all direct investments that the institution now make in the fossil fuel industry must be ‘immediately restricted’ and their endowment’s indirect funding reduced to 0.6% at least.
Divestment has been an issue that campaigners have targeted for years – in 2015, the university agreed to halt financial support that contributed to the more harmful coal and tar sands industries yet stopped short of complete divestment. Although Oxford have now finally fully committed, they are by no means pioneers in this field. The student campaign ‘People and Planet’ shows on its website that Glasgow University was the first UK university to divest. SOAS followed in 2015, 14 others divested in 2017, and nine universities signed the campaign’s Fossil Free Declaration in August 2017. Oxford is simply catching up.
Such a move from a historical, traditional institution shows that divestment is clearly becoming an unavoidable issue in climate change discourse. Students are key players in this discussion, as over half of the UK’s public universities have decided to divest. Many are moving in the right direction, yet their impetus isn’t yet strong enough. Harvard University for example has agreed to be ‘greenhouse gas neutral’ by 2050 in line with the 2015 Paris Climate agreement. Yet this sets a distant goal which lacks the ‘immediacy’ of Oxford’s decision and could perhaps delay real change from happening more urgently. It also seems to suggest a continued support for fossil fuel companies – in 2017 Harvard announced a ‘pause’ in contributing to such companies, yet this is by no means a long-term change in behaviour; they can only ‘doubt’ direct investments will occur again. Closer to home, the University of Cambridge is also yet to make the jump. There are some hopeful signs – colleges such as Jesus, Emmanuel and Clare Hall have independently divested and Selwyn College has in recent years sold off all its shares in fossil fuel companies. Yet the university is yet to match Oxford. The fact some of those who are higher up in the decision-making process see benefits in maintaining such harmful investments is even more concerning. Professor Dame Athene Macdonald, the previous chair of the university’s Divestment Working Group, suggested that prolonged involvement in fact secures the ability to have ‘influence’ in changing the attitudes of such energy companies. Yet it is hard to support such a view – $14.41 trillion has already been divested internationally from over 1000 institutions. Such a substantial amount of money evidently shows that accepting this need for change is increasingly important and remaining attached to such companies that are wholly unsustainable is futile and only serves immediate financial gain.
Yet most noticeably, when comparing all of these other universities to Oxford, they are less proactive in another more important way. Returning to the Fossil Fuel Declaration pledge, the focus is most definitely on ‘divestment’; ‘investment policy’ that extends from this seems secondary. Universities such as Durham and Bristol may have finally chosen to divest after years of student pressure, yet this cannot be the end of their efforts. Oxford’s actions are just as important as divestment itself, as they have presented alterations that encourage deep rooted transformation that support climate goals in the sustainable long term. It is using a two-pronged approach to do so. After divestment, they intend to ‘engage’ - this will see increased interaction between endowment managers and investment managers to ensure investments support net-zero carbon emissions, and an annual report will be required to show their progress. Secondly, they intend to ‘oversee’. The university has established measures to introduce a new, third member to their investment committee that has ‘recent and relevant’ experience in climate-related investment. This individual will formally review both the divestment and ‘engagement’ components and present the conclusions annually to the university council, information that will be made publicly available. Other aspects that Oxford have instigated enhance this approach. Sponsorship will only be accepted from similarly minded organisations, research will support carbon-free goals, and student career events will not provide a platform for pro-fossil fuel bodies. In light of all of this, divestment appears to be far broader than the stand-alone word. This is something Oxford has recognised, not only in using it as a tool to stimulate change but also in acknowledging the need to take the extra steps.
Their influential power will spread this idea. Leading institutions such as Oxford are internationally known and thus carry the message further. Other organisations will find it hard to ignore the actions of such an established, renowned institution that has still managed to make the necessary changes in comparison to more modern, liberal insitutitions, encouraging them to consider their own relationship with the environment in a more immediate way. False promises need to be replaced by manifest actions. In 2017 the World Bank promised to end direct investments in oil and gas, yet this year promised £43bn to Guyana to help with fossil fuel extraction. Oxford is striving for a transparency that counteracts such a damaging approach with their new measures.
Oxford’s decision provides hope. It proves that even more appealing, established organisations that usually have to do less to attract support are also realising the importance of such change not just for themselves. Development of such an attitude will support the renewable energy industry and also ensure other businesses continue to turn over profit in a way that is far more positive on a universal level. As we continue to campaign for divestment therefore, whether through discussion or activism, it is incredibly important that our demands are more encompassing – not only do we want our universities to divest but also provide the support mechanisms that will make such a move beneficial in the long term, taking into account not only the institution in isolation but also our planet.
Written by Louder Than the Storm Writer Hana Edwards