Mill Lane Lecture Theatres, the location of the conferenceLouis Ashworth

Today, CUSU ethical affairs hosted a conference at Mill Lane lecture theatres to explore the fossil-fuels divestment debate.

The morning kicked off with a question and answer session with the University Council’s Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope, Chief Financial Officer, Anthony Odgers, and Director of Cambridge Zero, Emily Shuckburgh. The event was attended by many students, members of the University Council and staff. Campaign groups such as Zero Carbon were also present.

Following an update from the University Council on their divestment policy earlier this week, the speakers reiterated that the Council is still undecided on the University’s strategy in dealing with fossil fuel companies.

“We need to redesign the Titanic, not just move the odd deck-chair”

Toope opened by recognising that “climate change is an existential threat… we have to decide and act urgently” but that divestment is not necessarily the option that is “[most] likely to have the most impact on changing corporate behaviour.”

Odgers also expressed his belief that “Cambridge is in a great position to have real practical impact”, whilst Shuckburgh noted the extremity of the adaptation necessary to combat climate change: “we need to redesign the Titanic, not just move the odd deck chair.”

When questioned about the immorality of investing in corporations that cause destruction and loss of life, Toope argued that it is more important to instigate changes “across the broader economy” than to make a moral statement. “What if the moral statement is a statement that actually lessens our ability to have impact?” he said.

Odgers argued that divestment may actually have a negative impact in the long term: “Is selling our shares to someone who cares less about climate change than we do the answer?”

When asked about the historical impact of Cambridge University on the actions of fossil fuel companies, Toope admitted that “historically, the university did not engage” but that recently, for the first time there was a “direct engagement between the CEO of the University Council with one of [their] main asset managers” about how to decarbonise investments.

“It’s not about asking nicely, it’s about applying very concrete pressure”

Shuckburgh endorsed the actions of campaign groups such as Zero Carbon. "Please go and doorstop BP if they come to graduate events," she said, while Toope noted that “it’s not about asking nicely, it’s about applying very concrete pressure.”

However, Toope recognised that Cambridge would have to work with many other institutions in order to create changes in the fossil fuel sector: “I’m not pretending that Cambridge, in and of itself, will be the only actor that can make a difference in this.”

When challenged by CUSU President Edward Parker Humphreys on the fact that divestment is a collaborative, global movement towards decarbonisation, Toope argued that the University should focus on demand for fossil fuels, rather than their production: “they won’t want it to come out of the ground if there isn’t actually a demand for it.”

“If the evidence clearly shows us that divestment is the right way forward, then that’s the way we should move.”

Both Toope and Shuckburgh said that divestment would be instigated if there was sufficient evidence for its environmental and financial benefits. “We are a university. We do evidence based policy making. If the evidence changes, then the policy changes as well,” said Shuckburgh.

Odgers noted that it could take “years” for the University to act on the evidential benefits of divestments, as they would have to “reassess” after a period of attempting to work with companies on decarbonisation.

When asked why they would delay, given the positive evidence from other companies divesting, Toope replied, “I know it looks like we have a lot of money, but in the grand scheme of things we don’t have a huge investment when you look at capital flows across the world.”


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Toope said that any evidence for the benefits of divestments would be “taken very seriously” by the University Council. “If the evidence clearly shows us that divestment is the right way forward, then that’s the way we should move.”

The University of California’s recent divestment of its $70 billion pension fund and $13.4 billion endowment was given as an example of an institution divesting in fossil fuels due to concerns around stranded assets and financial sustainability.

Odgers noted that noted that “our £3 billion endowment seems like a lot of money, but compared to most funds it’s tiny” and argued that university’s fund managers “invest less in fossil fuels than the average market” but that compelling evidence of fossil fuel companies being overvalued would be acted upon by the financial officers.

Shuckburgh was optimistic about the University’s role in a “global conversation” to shift the goal of a “low carbon future” to that of a “zero carbon future” through Cambridge Zero, an “ambitious new climate change initiative” being launched by the university this month to “respond to climate change and support the transition to a sustainable zero-carbon future, both in the UK and globally.” Toope acknowledged that Cambridge Zero “has to engage across the political, legal, philosophical, cultural, psychological sectors in order to make this change.”

Audience members applauded a questioner who criticised the council for using shareholder engagement as a “delay tactic”. The questioner argued that divestment and engagement were not mutually exclusive.

Toope’s response was that the “right question for the University to ask” is what solution “makes the most fundamental difference”. He agreed that the shareholder resolutions “have not been as successful as they need to be to actually shift this” but said that if the University “[pulls] out of that whole process, then we can’t have any influence over it whatsoever”.

Toope argued that “there are new strategies evolving here” and suggested that working “collaboratively across our sector and the whole institutional investment sector might have more impact” than divestment.

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