"If Cambridge wants to continue being scientifically-respected institution, it must cut all links with the fossil fuel industry”Louis Ashworth

Cambridge University has come under fire for the controversial research program of its new ‘Cambridge Zero’ initiative, and campaigners have expressed concerns regarding the appointment of climate scientist Dr Emily Shuckburgh as its Director.

The new initiative , set to launch on November 26th, has been branded a University “greenwashing tactic” by student activist group Zero Carbon. According to its website, it aims to “harness the full power of the University’s research and policy expertise” to create “a zero-carbon future”.

The accusations come after Zero Carbon released a report in October detailing the University’s close links with the fossil fuel industry, parts of which the University then erased from their online websites. It also follows The Guardian’s revelations this month showing the University this year accepted a £6million donation from Shell.

Cambridge Zero has further expressed its desire to pursue geoengineering research under the name of ′Climate Repair’. Geoengineering technologies aim at large-scale interventions in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change, but come with risks, including further damage to ecosystems, and have not been proven to work at scale.

This research will also be in partnership with the BP Institute, a University entity which is endowed and partially funded by BP, and the Engineering Department’s ANAM Initiative, which is currently working directly with the arms industry.

What is ‘Cambridge Zero’?

Cambridge Zero is the University’s new multidisciplinary research programme broadly aiming to fostering a more sustainable future, and was first announced by Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope in his annual address in October.

Cambridge Zero was formerly called ‘Carbon Neutral Futures Initiative’, first announced in May, but changed its name without explanation in September to ‘Cambridge Zero’.

Zero Carbon said the University’s new adoption of a similar name to them in this initiative is a “fossil fuel partnered PR stunt initiative in order to give social legitimacy to climate criminals”.

The student activist group urged this effort would not “deceive anyone, but cast further doubt over the University’s seriousness to address climate change”.

Dr Emily Shuckburgh

Dr Shuckburgh, a climate scientist who has previously worked for 13 years at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), was first appointed Director of Cambridge Zero (then ‘Carbon Neutral Futures’) in April 2019.

Student campaigners have expressed concerns regarding Shuckburgh’s previous connection with oil exploration company Schlumberger in 2013, and said that Shuckburgh has previously shared the stage at events with oil executives.

In a letter to the Guardian following their publication of an article outlining campaigners’ allegations against her, Shuckburgh wrote: “As a prominent climate scientist, I have been on many panels talking about climate science and there have been occasions on which oil executives have been on the panels too. This in no way implies a “connection with the fossil fuel industry”.”

In her letter, Shuckburgh affirmed: “I have never given a talk at an event organised by BP.” She noted, however that in 2012, 2015 and 2018 she gave climate science talks to masters students at the BP institute, a research institute at the University.

Next month, Shuckburgh is set to attend the BP Institute’s ‘Masterclass in Energy Supply and Demand 2019’ event, where she will share a stage with several fossil fuel industry figures such as the Vice President for Group Strategic Planning at BP, Dominic Emery.

Regarding concerns raised surrounding her links with Schlumberger, Shuckburgh said that, as the principal researcher on a 2013 grant provided by the National Environment Research Council, she used data from Schlumberger ship surveys to contribute to work on fuel efficiency and to academic writings. According to Shuckburgh, this project was not, contrary to campaigners’ allegations, for Schlumberger.

‘Climate Repair’

Climate Repair technologies, otherwise known as geoengineering, are proposed large-scale solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change.

One such solution involves refreezing the poles by spraying tiny particles of salt into the atmosphere via tall masts connected to ships - this makes surrounding clouds more reflective, and so cools the areas below them.

However, each technology comes with drawbacks, ranging from studies showing their overall ineffectiveness in reducing global temperatures, to actually damaging ecosystems or even further contributing to climate change.

A Harvard professor’s study in March showed that solar geoengineering should not be ruled out and may “really substantially reduce climate risks”.

However, a report released earlier this year by the Center for International Environmental Law shows a large number of advocates of geoengineering hold a stake in the fossil fuel industry. This has led some climate scientists to label it a ’distraction’ by fossil fuel companies from effective climate solutions like transitioning to renewables.

Another aspect of Cambridge Zero’s research programme is “advancing carbon capture [and] geological storage”, a method involving capturing carbon dioxide (usually from large emitters such as factories), transporting and storing it underground.

However, in some cases using carbon capture may in fact increase air pollution.

“We are alarmed to see Cambridge has succumbed to fossil fuel interests to research on geoengineering under the Orwellian spin of ‘Climate Repair’”, said two anti-geoengineering advocacy groups EcoNexus and Biofuelwatch, in a letter responding to Cambridge Zero’s launch.


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“Geoengineering is a fantasy technology that at best legitimises the ongoing ecocide and genocide perpetuated by fossil fuel companies [...] If Cambridge wants to continue being scientifically-respected institution, it must cut all links with the fossil fuel industry”.

In response, a university spokesperson told The Guardian, “Cambridge Zero is the University of Cambridge’s response to calls for action on climate change. It harnesses the research, innovation and policy ideas from more than a thousand academics across the university with a singular focus on decarbonising the modern economy. Dr Emily Shuckburgh is one of the UK’s leading climate scientists with a 25-year academic career dedicated to scientific discovery exclusively related to climate science at Oxford, MIT, Cambridge and the British Antarctic Survey.”

  • This article was amended on 30th November 2019 to provide comment from Dr Emily Shuckburgh, and to remove several unfair implications about her interactions with the fossil fuel industry, for which Varsity apologises.

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