There is already a surplus of fossil fuelsPixabay

The recent findings from the Paradise Papers have brought to light shocking acts of negligence by public figures, from the Queen to Shakira – but one of the most glaring acts of hypocrisy has come from the University of Cambridge and its constituent colleges. In these documents, the university was found to have invested £1.3 million in Coller international, a tax-dodging private equity firm that primarily invests in Shell, alongside two deep-sea oil exploration companies. Ten colleges were also found to have pumped money into the fund, including £10m from hardly-cash-strapped Trinity College.

This news comes in the context of an ongoing campaign to make the University divest from fossil fuels. Last year, the governing body of the University – Senate House – passed a democratic grace to put the process of divestment in motion, but this was overruled by the University Council, which instead opted for a drawn-out consultation process to evaluate whether divestment fitted its goal to ‘contribute to society through the pursuit of education.’

This is a disturbing failure. By deciding not to act faster, the University has opted to play an active role in the destruction of the very society it seeks to contribute towards. It is engaging in the existentially damaging game of climate change, in which the next three years will be unprecedentedly crucial. Major action on moving away from fossil fuels is widely cited by scientists as necessary before 2020 if the aim of keeping to two degrees warming is to be reached. Divestment makes financial and moral sense and Cambridge is not acting fast enough.

"Divestment makes financial and moral sense and Cambridge is not acting fast enough"

Cambridge is estimated to have £370 million invested in fossil fuel companies overall. This is a significant investment in corporations that already have 3 times more fossil fuels in reserve than we are able to burn if we keep to the moderate target of two degrees of global warming agreed in Paris 2015. The companies that Cambridge has investments in, such as Xtreme Coil, BP and Shell, continue to explore for further fossil fuel reserves, something clearly unfeasible when considering that burning current stocks would lead to a climate disaster. Cambridge could send a clear moral signal to these groups, as well as removing financial support. Otherwise, it risks being part of the problem in a moment of ever-worsening crisis.

Divestment by universities has been shown to work historically: it was part of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and against the war in Darfur. And, as Cambridge is the university with the largest endowment in Europe, their divestment could have a definite impact. The idea that remaining a shareholder could give the University more influence over the policies of fossil fuel companies has no historical basis in the last thirty years of trying. It is difficult to see how this could have anything beyond an incremental impact; it would require shareholders to force the complete reimagining of the purpose of huge corporations.


Mountain View

Divestment movement marches on, with demonstrations and town hall meetings

The moral reckoning behind divestment is clear but many in the university still raise financial concerns, despite investment posing greater financial risk to them than reward. Figures as viciously left-wing as the IMF, the World Bank and Mark Carney have all identified the potential trap that fossil fuel companies currently face. If they refuse to act with the international consensus and instead use up their current reserves they will destroy the planet, but if international agreements are followed, the companies will be left with huge amounts of money in ‘stranded assets’, or fuel they cannot burn. This could be up to $100 trillion, an estimate made by Citigroup. It will not affect research funding either: Cambridge has only received relatively small amounts from fossil fuel companies – £15.8 million between 2009 and 2014 – which pales in comparison to the amount it gets in government funding. Not divesting makes little sense, even with morals put to one side.

Divestment may not be the solution to climate change and few argue that it is. But for Cambridge to refuse to divert funds from fossil fuels, as we lead up to a moment in 2020 where we need to show significant change not to surpass two degrees, is an immense moral failure. As a university it cannot hold onto the pretence of financial arguments any longer; if it truly claims to seek to contribute positively to society then action must be taken now