Protesters meet Stephen Toope outside the University Council meetingVarsity

A crowd of approximately 40 activists gathered this morning outside the building where University Council members discussed the divestment working group’s report in the highly-anticipated lead-up to a decision on whether to divest from fossil fuels.

Outside Storey’s Field Centre at the North West Cambridge development site, campaigners chanted as council members entered the building, handing out printed copies of a recent Financial Times article detailing the University’s divestment efforts.

Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope arrived at 10am, and was escorted directly past the chanting protesters. Umang Khandelwal, university councillor and the only non-CUSU or GU-affiliated student on the Council, was also seen entering the building.

Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope arrives at the council meetingMathias Gjesdal Hammer

Marcel Llavero Pasquina, university councillor-elect and prominent Zero Carbon member told Varsity about the significance of today’s meeting: “his time, for the first time in a year they’re going to discuss how divestment will be achieved.” He added that he “hopes University Council follows through with a democratic decision by its members.”

Llavero-Pasquina criticised what he viewed as an issue of student representation within the University governance, noting that, “it’s a recurring problem here in the University: students have a seat on the table, but they don’t have a voice. We are represented, but we are not listened to. Council must demonstrate today that the University cares about its students and cares about its members.”

He emphasised the need to remain optimistic in the face of climate injustice, saying: “I really think that’s the only way to go forward with divestment because otherwise we’re presented with a bleak image of climate chaos around the world, and a bleak image of undemocratic governance.”

Rallyers gathered outside the building entrance sporting bright orange clothes and signsMathias Gjesdal Hammer

Protesters sang chants heard repeatedly at past Zero Carbon rallies, including, “Power to divestment”, and, “What do we want? Climate justice. When do we want it? Now.”

They also shouted the names of each member of the University Council, calling individually on each of them to support “full divestment”.

Many brought signs, bearing slogans such as “We won’t rest until you divest” and “Demarketise, democratise, divest”, and banged on pots and pans as they sang. Several dressed in bright orange, the society’s official colour.

CUSU President Daisy Eyre emphasised her support for divestment, and for the activist efforts of the “passionate and dedicated” members of Zero Carbon, saying, “it’s important that we continue to show the university that we won’t accept excuses for much longer.”

“It’s financially, environmentally and morally prudent to divest now,” Eyre told Varsity.

Prominent Zero Carbon member Angus Satow said the meeting was “a combination of a three year struggle by University students and staff to get out University to divest, in keeping with its supposed mission statement of sustainability.” He referenced the support shown for divestment through the Zero Carbon petition, and said “it’s about democracy, it’s about justice, and it’s about a University that puts its money where its mouth is.”

CUSU president Daisy Eyre arrived at the meetingMathias Gjesdal Hammer

Cambridge alumna Jenny Langley attended the rally in support of Zero Carbon,” and stressed to Varsity the importance of University divestment, adding that “Cambridge University is such beacon, and it’s in such a powerful position that if it divests, it will provide a big boost to the divestment movement.”

The divestment working group has been in operation since last May, and was tasked with writing a report “to consider the question of divestment from businesses involved in fossil fuel extraction,” and help senior University figures decide a position on divestment. The working group’s open ‘town hall’ meeting last October saw multiple students and academics appear to share their stances on divestment.

At today’s meeting, an open letter signed by 19 student representatives of the faculties and schools – one student member from every Council of the Schools, as well as 15 student members who hold positions on Faculty Boards – will be discussed. Organiser George Breckenridge, a student representative for the School of Physical Sciences and the Faculty of Earth Science and Geography, told Varsity the letter was designed to sit in solidarity with Zero Carbon’s stance, but separate from the public interventions it has recently staged.

The letter comes amid a stream of increasing public declarations in support of divestment from students and staff, some of whom hold positions within University governance structure. Zero Carbon has created a petition urging students to express their support for divestment, which has garnered over 1,100 signatures at the time of writing, and an open letter signed by over 300 academics, which was delivered to the University Council.

Rallyers handed out leaflets and print-outs of a recent Financial Times article Mathias Gjesdal Hammer

In a statement to Varsity, the Zero Carbon Society stressed the importance of today’s meeting: “This is the crucial moment for divestment at Cambridge. [...] after 3 years of campaigning and positive decisions in all the university’s democratic governing bodies, the council finally has a chance to respond to overwhelming support of students and staff.”

They added: “Divestment is urgent, divestment is possible - the council have heard us today and we will not stop escalating until they divest.”

The University Council consists of 25 members, including the Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor and three student representatives.


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Democracy is vital to the divestment process

In a statement following the meeting, vice-chancellor Stephen Toope said: “The Council welcomed today’s report of the Working Group on Divestment, which was seen as a significant step in helping the University enhance its leadership role in understanding and tackling climate change.

“Together with other papers presented today on the University’s carbon reduction strategy and greater transparency for the Cambridge University Endowment Fund (CUEF), I believe today marks a key moment in the debate that is occupying so many members of staff and students. It would not be appropriate for Council to sign off such a wide-ranging and detailed report without proper consideration.

“The Council will consider its response in detail over the next few weeks. It expects to publish that response and the Working Group report in full after the next Council meeting in May. The objective, as the report sets out, is to promote and execute urgent and tangible action to deliver a carbon neutral future.”

The University has repeatedly come under fire for its failure to divest, especially after the November Paradise Paper leak revealed that Cambridge held indirect investments totalling £1.3 million in Coller International, a private equity firm in close involvement with Royal Dutch Shell, an oil and gas company.

Several UK Universities have recently pledged to fully divest, including Durham, Edinburgh and Bristol, putting pressure on Cambridge to follow. In this respect, Daisy Eyre told Varsity, Cambridge is “behind the curve.”

Zero Carbon has staged a number of high-profile protests in recent months. Most recently, 15 activists broke into the University finance office, denying entry to staff members, and staged an occupation lasting more than 5 hours. Their march last month saw more than 359 people protest against ‘corporation Cambridge’, and they have performed several high-profile stunts including a banner drop at the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race and a mock wedding ceremony.

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