John Shakeshaft, centre, walking out of a University Council meeting in JuneMathias Gjesdal-Hammer

In 2017, members of the University of Cambridge’s divestment working group declared their possible conflicts of interest relevant to the broad question of whether the University should divest from the fossil fuel sector.

In their declarations, two members of the group did not disclose that they were directly involved in two major proposed donations to Cambridge from mining and petroleum company BHP Billiton and oil and gas company BP, a bombshell report by The Guardian has today revealed.

University management were aware that BP and BHP Billiton were considering donations to Cambridge while considering divestment. Varsity understands Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope was aware of Redfern's involvement in the donations.

Re-cap: What is fossil fuel divestment, and how did the movement for Cambridge to divest unfold?

Divestment is defined as getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous. Fossil fuel divestment refers specifically to ending investments and sponsorship relationships with fossil fuels companies.

Cambridge has a £6.3bn endowment. While Cambridge currently has “negligible” direct holdings in fossil fuels companies, it does indirectly investment in fossil fuels companies because it has holdings in funds which include fossil fuels companies in their portfolio.

The University’s indirect investments came under scrutiny last November, following revelations of The Guardian’s Paradise Papers that Cambridge invested a total of £1.3m in Guernsey-based private equity firm Coller International, channelled principally towards oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell.

Cambridge Zero Carbon, a divestment campaigning group, has been pushing for Cambridge to divest since it was founded in 2015.

The most crucial moment in the movement came in June last year, when the University’s 25-member primary decision-making body, called University Council, voted not to divest fully from fossil fuels on the recommendation of the divestment working group.

The decision was a defining moment for divestment campaigners who had engaged in escalated action in the months preceding the decision, including a seven-day occupation of a key administrative building and a six-day hunger strike by three students.

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The working group’s eventual report informed a landmark decision last June to reject calls from across the University for full divestment from the fossil fuels sector.

Professor Simon Redfern, an academic in the Department of Earth Sciences, and John Shakeshaft, the deputy chair of the working group and then-member of University Council, were both directly involved in a £20 million donation from BHP Billiton and £2 million from BP to fund research in Redfern’s department. The offer from BHP Billiton was later rescinded. 

All working group members were asked to declare any conflicts of interest to the public. Redfern’s sole disclosed conflict of interest was: “Wife is Editor of “Green Christian” (a journal of an organisation that is linked to advocacy of divestment).”

In full: Who were the members of Cambridge’s divestment working group?

– Chair of the working group Dame Athene Donald, who is also master of Churchill and a professor of experimental physics.

– Deputy chair John Shakeshaft, who served as an external member of the University Council, the primary group responsible for making key decisions for the University.

Jocelyn Wyburd, another member of University Council and a director at the language centre.

– Professor Ash Amin and Dr Berry Groisman, who were two of the 140 fellows who put forth the proposal for Cambridge to divest.

Alice Guillaume and Umang Khandelwal, two student representatives. Guillaume resigned in March last year in protest of the report.

– Professor Simon Redfern and Dr Jerome Neufeld, the former of whom was overseeing the donations from BHP Billiton and BP to his department, the department of Earth Sciences.

Chris Smith, The Right Honourable Baron Smith of Finsbury, who is the master of Pembroke.

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Shakeshaft’s sole declaration of a conflict of interest was that he is “chair of a private investment fund (Valiance Co Investment) that has an undisclosed small residual interest in Celadon Mining, a Chinese coal mining company. The interest is illiquid, unsaleable and de minimis to the fund.”

Speaking to The Guardian, a University of Cambridge spokesperson said that the donation from BP was “part of a longstanding agreement with a partner who has funded its well-known BP Institute for 25 years.”

Redfern has stated openly that he opposes full divestment from the fossil fuels sector. Speaking to Varsity last June in the lead-up to the University council’s divestment decision, he said he saw divestment as taking a “stance” on the climate crisis, but “not solving the problem.”

Explained: Divestment working group conflict of interestVarsity

A Cambridge spokesperson said to The Guardian that the claim that the proposed donations influenced the divestment working group is “wrong”, and added that the divestment working group was set up “to hear from all sides of the debate.”

They added, “the £20 million donation offer from BHP was part of a project proposal from the University of Cambridge and other potential partners to the government's UK Research Partnership Investment Fund to provide laboratory, interaction, new teaching and learning spaces for Earth Sciences to help it tackle climate change.

“There was no other BHP money proposed. The project application to government was unsuccessful and BHP withdrew their funding offer. 

Commenting on the revelations, co-founder of the global divestment movement and renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben said that the influence of links with these companies “on Cambridge’s decision to reject divestment is profoundly shocking”, adding that “collusion between the fossil fuel industry and the world’s top universities must end if we are to have a hope of tackling the climate crisis.”

The working group’s report, published last May, was met with sharp criticism. An open letter signed by 200 academics described the report as “a transparent attempt to thwart the direct and positive action of divestment by offering a range of more distant and ill-defined proposals in its place”, detailing what they deemed a mischaracterisation of campaigners’ concerns, and directly disputing the report’s claims that it is, for now, too difficult to commit to full divestment.

The working group has previously been criticised for its members’ ties to the fossil fuels industry.

Dame Athene Donald, who chaired the working group, publicly declared minor holdings in Royal Dutch Shell, Total and BP.

Master of Pembroke Lord Chris Smith previously led an “independent” task force looking into the risks and benefits of fracking in the UK, which he also publicly declared. This task force was funded by shale gas companies.

Dr Jerome Neufeld, a reader in earth and planetary fluid dynamics, also declared ties to research projects funded by companies including Shell, BP and BHP Billiton.

In an open meeting in March last year, Toope was questioned about working group members’ declared conflicts of interest. In response, he said that members’ experiences with the fossil fuels industry would influence them, but so would ethical and social considerations.

Cambridge’s divestment working group was set up in May 2017 to consider “the advantages and disadvantages of the policy of disinvestment.” The University formed the working group in response to a motion proposed by 140 academics calling on the University to divest fully from fossil fuels, rejecting their proposal as a mandate, but claiming they “recogniz[ed] the strong feeling” of the academics.

Explained The 2018 divestment working group report

The contents of the divestment working group report divided members of the University Council in May, in its 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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Another member of the working group, Alice Guillaume, who served as a student representative on the divestment working group but resigned in March last year over the “sham” draft report, said in a statement: “The fact that these donations were even on the table was not disclosed to the working group at any stage. I was completely unaware that they were taking place… I am shocked by the news and now seriously doubt the integrity of the process as a whole.”


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In light of today’s findings, Dr Jason Scott-Warren, a newly-elected member of University Council, said: “The decision the University Council took against divestment needs urgently to be revisited and rescinded.”

In a statement, divestment campaign group Cambridge Zero Carbon called on the University to revoke the working group report and “begin an immediate, transparent and democratic process to investigate how they can fully divest from fossil fuels.”

BP has previously donated grants totalling £1.4m, from 2015 to 2016. In 2000, it gave £22m to set up the BP Institute, a interdisciplinary energy research institute. The Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology also has ongoing partnerships with companies including BP, ExxonMobil, and more.

In April last year, CEO of BP Bob Dudley commented on the divestment campaign in Cambridge at an industry summit for international energy negotiators: “We donate and do lots of research at Cambridge so I hope they come to their senses on this.”