Members of University Council following the meeting to discuss the working group report MATHIAS GJESDAL HAMMER

Cambridge academics have signed an open letter calling on the University to “reject” the recommendations of the divestment working group report and to commit instead to full divestment within five years.

Detailing the “unsatisfactory aspects” of the report, the letter claims that the working group’s advice “represents a transparent attempt to thwart the direct and positive action of divestment”. At the time of writing, there were 61 signatories.

This divestment working group was set up in 2017 to examine the “advantages and disadvantages” of divestment. Their report was presented to the University Council earlier this month, with the Council still continuing discussions on whether to commit to full divestment.

Explained Making sense of the 2018 divestment working group report

The contents of the divestment working group report divided members of the University Council. The Council has therefore planned an extraordinary meeting within the next month to deliberate further whether to accept the recommendations that:

1. The University adopt a commitment to “considered divestment”

2. The University should commit to being carbon neutral by 2040

3. 100% of the University’s energy should come from renewable sources by 2030

4. The University should not invest in thermal coal or tar sands directly or indirectly

5. “10% of indirect investment should be placed with funds that embrace Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) funds that are “consistent with a carbon neutral future”

6. The University should commit to the UN Principles of Responsible Investment

7. The Investment Office should become increasingly transparent about its investment processes through an annual report, with “information on environmental and social funds”, as well as an “informative website”

8. The University should join the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC), “or an alternative equivalent”, “to ensure it lends its voice and authority in engagement with industry”

9. A Centre for a carbon-neutral future should be established to combine research on energy production and use, climate, sustainability, and policy

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The letter criticises the “insulting” claim that those involved in the campaign for divestment “do not understand” that “not all of the University’s investments are direct”, arguing that it was the report's “decisive point in the case against divestment”. 

The working group report justified its position of ‘considered divestment’ in arguing that by joining the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC), the University would be able to shape a transition to a low-carbon economy more directly with fossil fuel companies.

The “validity” of the report’s assumption that “for the time being fossil fuels will remain part of the energy mix” is also called into question, with the open letter arguing that suggestions of a longer time-frame for transitioning to renewable energies is “a betrayal of current and future generations”.

It is also claimed that the report contains “no assessment of the extent” of the University’s collaborations with fossil fuel companies or funding received from such companies. By not stating any such interests explicitly, the letter claims that the objectivity of submissions received by the working group, and therefore its conclusions, may be “seriously compromise[d]”.

The open letter claims that the report “emphasises the University’s obligation to maximise the return on its investments”, claiming that an indirect investment strategy enables institutions such as Cambridge to “distance themselves from the ethical consequences of their investments”.

Several of the report’s proposals are criticised.  Signing up to the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment is called “little more than a smokescreen” which “protects institutions from confronting their ethical responsibilities”.


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Dame Athene Donald, the chair of the working group, did not respond to the specific allegations made in the open letter. She said that their report  “took evidence from all sides of the debate, including University staff and students through open meetings”.  She added that the group was comprised of members “with a very broad range of opinions”, noting that they have “spent the last year considering this complex issue”.

In response to the working group report, Cambridge Zero Carbon Society have continued their direct action, aiming to push the University to commit to complete divestment. Yesterday, the group staged a triple banner drop across the River Cam, chanting and releasing vibrantly coloured flares.

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