Should fossil fuel companies have a place in scientific research? Li-An Lim via Unsplash

The 2021 IPCC report made the scientific consensus on climate change clear: man-made climate crises pose a “code red for humanity”. Therefore, companies whose primary commercial activities are oil and gas extraction are flying in the face of broadly accepted environmental science. Climate research continues to affirm the need for radical action to mitigate environmental catastrophes and argues that fossil fuel companies like BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil need to drastically reinvent themselves in order to play a role in the economy of tomorrow. If science is declaring that the energy transition needs to happen immediately, why do the world’s largest investors in oil and gas continue to give millions in research money to top universities?

“Well curated PR is not enough to cover up the extent to which these companies have driven climate crises”

A brief scan of BP’s glossy website, complete with an aesthetically pleasing green colour scheme and a declaration on the homepage that the company supports a “rapid transition to net zero” would have you believe that fossil fuel giants are sincerely interested in implementing the findings of climate science. At first glance, this could seem like a logical explanation for why BP and Shell have given £19.7 million combined in research and philanthropic donations to the University of Cambridge over the last six years, all as part of what they describe as their apparent “ambitious plans, to do more, to go faster”.

There is however, perhaps unsurprisingly, a tricky relationship between appearance and reality. In the case of BP and Shell, there is a gaping, insurmountable gap between public statements and tangible commitments. Although both BP and Shell have stated their goal to become net zero companies by 2050, neither have medium or long-term plans to reduce emissions in a way that is compatible with the goal of limiting temperature rises to below 2° celsius globally. Virtually all oil and gas companies have plans to expand the extraction and exploitation of fossil fuels over the coming years, although this is in direct conflict with the International Energy Agency’s 2021 conclusion that no new fossil fuel projects could go ahead from 2022. BP, ExxonMobil and Shell all give millions in annual donations to the American Petroleum Institute, an American pressure group designed to protect oil interests in politics and to block progressive environmental measures.

Well curated PR is not enough to cover up the extent to which these companies have driven climate crises. As BP Executive Vice President Dev Sanyal clarified at the 2012 Petroleum Exploration Technology Exhibit, the big challenge for the fossil fuel industry is obtaining a “social licence to operate”. In other words, companies like BP recognise that they can’t continue with business as normal unless society broadly accepts what they do. This is the fundamental service that universities like Cambridge are providing to these companies. By taking their research money, even if the percentage of overall income to the university is negligible, higher educational institutions are affirming that the world’s biggest polluters have a legitimate role in the proliferation of scientific knowledge.

“No matter what sustainability buzzword is in the company title, green subsidiaries continue to exist to serve the interests of fossil fuel giants”

The University of Cambridge became directly confronted with these issues in July 2022 when members of the university proposed a Grace that called for an end to all sponsorships and collaborations with companies involved in the fossil fuel industry. In response, governors of the University commissioned a report led by the UK’s high-level climate champion Nigel Topping on the impact of this suggested course of action. Published in July 2023, the report broadly supports the conclusion that the university should stop accepting research funding from fossil fuel companies. Ultimately, it asserts that Cambridge is neglecting its mission to “contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research” by receiving support from fossil fuel companies that have systematically misled the public on climate change.

Although the report concludes that the case for fossil-free research has “real merit”, it ultimately recommends a toned down form of the proposition originally presented to the university. In Topping’s view, rather than stopping all collaboration and sponsorship from polluting companies, only financial contributions should be halted and renewables-based subsidiaries of fossil fuel companies should be considered independently. This would allow “green” branches of otherwise harmful companies to continue to be legitimate funding partners to the university. The report skirts the macroscopic question of how Big Oil has used the guise of environmentalism, including their so-called sustainable subsidiaries, to further profit-making from oil, coal and gas. Hindenburg Research recently reported that the Indian coal conglomerate Adani was using stocks of Adani Green, its renewables-focused daughter company, to secure a loan for the development of a highly controversial new coal mine. No matter what sustainability buzzword is in the company title, green subsidiaries continue to exist to serve the interests of fossil fuel giants and therefore have little to offer academic research.


Mountain View

Get Big Oil out of climate action

Regent’s House is set to decide whether Cambridge will implement Topping’s recommendations by December 2023. While the proposal as it currently stands is a starting rather than an end point for what fossil free research can look like, it nevertheless marks a huge opportunity for Cambridge to exhibit climate leadership. In the face of a deteriorating climate emergency, our generation has come to expect indifference and empty words from institutions in place of concrete actions. Although the report’s conclusions don’t address the full extent of Big Oil’s role in Cambridge, adopting Topping’s recommendations would be a powerful statement from an internationally esteemed university that climate criminals have no place in higher education.