Fossil fuel investments are becoming “economically unviable”Wikimedia Commons

Regent House members gathered on Tuesday to discuss the University’s investment policy, focusing on whether Cambridge should abstain from investments related to fossil fuels.

The Discussion, at Senate House, follows a report from the Working Group for Investment Responsibility, which recommended withdrawal from some carbon-related industries, but stopped short of calling for full divestment.

The report – published in June by the Advisory Committee on Benefactions and External and Legal Affairs (ACBELA) – drew criticism from the Cambridge Zero Carbon Society (ZC), who stated that the recommendations were “progress, but nowhere near enough”. 17 members of Regent House requested a Discussion in order to “consider the report of the ACBELA Working Group… and in particular consider a policy of divestment from fossil fuels”.

Figures from across the University gave speeches on the topic, including multiple heads of department and representatives from both ZC and Positive Investment Cambridge (PIC). Though student opinion was united, with all six speaking in favour of divesting, the rest of Regent House appeared divided. Eight members joined student calls for divestment, seven argued against, and one denied climate change altogether.

A variety of arguments were given in favour, primarily ethical and financial. Chris Galpin, a ZC representative, argued that the “moral argument is undeniable” and that “we need to abandon 80 per cent of our [fossil fuel] reserves” to avoid irreparable environmental damage.

Divestment is “not solely a moral stance”, argued Professor Lawrence King, who stated that fossil fuel investments are becoming “economically unviable”. He cited that the “Bank of England, The World Bank, Standard & Poor’s, Citibank and Goldman Sachs” have all expressed concerns that companies dependent on fossil fuels are overvalued and liable to sudden depreciation.

This is partly because the price of these companies’ shares is calculated under the assumption that all fossil fuel reserves will be consumed, and because the sector is threatened by the growing renewable energy industry.

Revd Jeremy Caddick, Dean of Emmanuel, emphasised that the Working Group found “no evidence that the University held any investments through its fund managers in fossil fuels”, suggesting that Cambridge had little to lose from divesting. It is an occasion “where doing the right thing actually brings us more money”.

However, the Working Group’s claims were contested by a ZC press release, which claimed that “many millions of pounds” were indirectly invested. Cambridge only directly holds four per cent of its investment portfolio, with the rest managed through third parties.

Caddick was one of many to emphasise that the aim of divestment was not financial harm but “to change public perception”. Dr Robert McFarlane, a Fellow at Emmanuel, stressed that Cambridge’s reputation meant “divestment is a hugely powerful way for the University to help shape public opinion”. Cambridge has been accused of lagging behind, as over 600 major institutions, collectively worth $3.4 trillion, have already divested, including Trinity College Dublin and SOAS. PIC representative Natalie Jones observed that Cambridge is liable to accusations of hypocrisy as, although “we do research on climate change...as an institution we remain silent”.

However, every head of department, school or division present at the Discussion argued against divestment. Professor Lindsay Greer, Head of the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, summarised by criticising divestment as a “blunt instrument”.

Professor Richard Prager, Head of the School of Technology, warned that “disinvestment could damage our relationships across a whole sector”, stating that his opposition to it was “not just a desire to avoid alienating valued sponsors of our research”, but because solutions can only be found by “engaging constructively with the industries”.

Others, such as the Bursar of Murray Edwards, Robert Gardiner, argued that the University should encourage companies to move away from fossil fuels through shareholder engagement. Caddick refuted this, likening it to “asking a lion very politely if he would consider the advantages of vegetarianism”.

Speaking to Varsity after the event, Galpin claimed that many of the members speaking against divestment “came from departments with significant financial links to fossil fuel companies” and that there was “no evidence” for divestment negatively affecting either research funding or undergraduate employment. He added that ZC “are hoping that there will be a vote on the University divesting next term”. PIC stated they “will ultimately support a vote if it comes to that”.

Student opinion appears to be strongly in favour of divestment, with CUSU Council previously voting 33-1 in support of ZC and the campaign group’s petition on the issue having gained over 2,300 signatures. This discussion suggests that a vote in Regent House would be far more uncertain.

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