Cambridge Zero Carbon have led a five-year campaign calling on the University to divestCambridge Zero Carbon

After a five-year campaign from several student and staff groups, the University of Cambridge yesterday (01/10) committed to remove all direct and indirect investments in the fossil fuel industry from its £3.5 billion endowment fund by 2030. 

The announcement, which has been described as a landmark decision by Cambridge Student Union President Ben Margolis,  was announced in the Vice-Chancellor’s annual address on Thursday (01/10) morning. The targets mark a major break with the energy sector; Cambridge has held close financial and research ties with BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and other fossil fuel companies for at least twenty years.

Cambridge Zero Carbon, the campaign which has been at the forefront of the five-year campaign for divestment, commented: “This is a historic victory for the divestment movement. After decades of close collaboration with the fossil fuel industry, Cambridge University has been forced to concede to divestment demands put forward by student and staff campaigners.”

Zero Carbon added “this sends a resounding signal to BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil: no more will Cambridge University profit from the companies who have decimated frontline communities, bankrolled misleading climate science, lobbied against environmental regulations, and continued to explore for oil even as the planet burns.”

Zero Carbon’s lobbying efforts, including coordinating a motion backed by 324 Cambridge academics in 2019 calling on the University to produce strategies for divestment, have also been accompanied by rallies and direct actions, such as their week-long occupation of the University finance offices in June 2018 by 25 students. 

As a result of this divestment report, Cambridge’s Investment Office has arrived at the decision to remove their investments in fossil fuels across all asset classes by 2030.

Cambridge Defend Education thanked Zero Carbon for their efforts in heading the divestment campaign and applauded them for “a massive, historic victory.”

This was echoed by Cambridge Students' Union (SU) Ethical Affairs Campaign who said “we hope that all organisers involved with Zero Carbon's phenomenal campaign are hugely proud of themselves today. As campaigners we must now focus on holding the University to this statement, lobbying the colleges to follow suit and push for Cambridge to reject all ties with extractivist industries.”

Meanwhile, Extinction Rebellion (XR) Cambridge, whose activists were present outside the Senate House during this morning’s address by the Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope described the announcement as “long-awaited”.

However, XR expressed concern, stating that they are “devastated to hear that divestment will not take place until 2030 - and that net zero across its investments will not be reached until 2038. Wildfires are burning across the globe, ecosystems are dying, and temperatures records are smashed again and again. People are dying; this is an emergency.”

XR Cambridge pledged to continue to press for the University to divest, telling Varsity “The University is moving in the right direction, but despite all the talk, their actions are still nowhere near proportionate to the crisis we face… We need immediate and drastic action, not distant targets to please fund managers and serve business as usual… It is time for them to do the right thing and divest now - not in 10 years' time”.

Similarly, Cambridge Zero Carbon, commented that “this announcement comes five years too late and we’ll be pushing for the 2030 commitment to be brought forward” and Ethical Affairs added “the University must examine why its own net zero emissions target is as late as 2048”.

Cambridge’s SU responded to the divestment announcement, acknowledging the “five years of dedicated campaigning by students, staff and the Students’ Union at the University” and highlighting that the decision “is a testament to the power of grassroots campaigning and should be recognised as such.”

The Vice Chancellor’s announcement also noted Cambridge will not accept funding from sources that are incompatible with its sustainability ambitions. This signals  a major break with companies that have long held close ties to Cambridge; for example, in 2000, BP donated £20 million to the University to found the BP Institute after a Cambridge University Professor Dan McKenzie developed a theory of sedimentary basins  that in McKenzie’s own words “caught on with the oil companies instantly... and has probably saved the oil companies, you know, £5 billion, something like that”. 

After the University formally rejected divestment in 2018, a Guardian investigation demonstrated conflicts of interest in the decision, with key decision-makers simultaneously overseeing multi million pound donations from BP and BHP Billiton.

Meanwhile in November 2019, Cambridge accepted a £6 million donation from Royal Dutch Shell, and a Zero Carbon report published a month earlier found that the BP Institute’s research was worth between $300 million and $3bn per year to oil production companies.

Zero Carbon commented on this, describing how: “last year, we exposed the extensive entanglement of the fossil fuel industry within the workings of the University, well beyond their investments. By taking research funding, extending invitations to careers fairs and naming their buildings after these companies, the University is clearly still in the oily clutches of this dirty industry. 


Mountain View

Breaking: University of Cambridge aims to divest from fossil fuels by 2030

The SU’s statement similarly recognised the decision as “a historic break between the University and the fossil fuel industry” but stressed that “Cambridge has deep-seated links with the fossil fuel industry which extend beyond merely financial investment to include the acceptance of research funding and sponsorship for professorships, as well as the undertaking of extractivist research.” 

The statement continued: “These ties must be cut if the University is to truly commit to meaningful climate action. The immediacy of the climate crisis must be recognised and higher education institutions have a crucial role to play in proactively reducing the social licence of damaging industries.” 

While the University has committed to fully divest this decision does not mean Cambridge's independent colleges will follow suit. As it stands only two colleges - Clare Hall and Queens - are fully divested with a further nine colleges partially divested. The SU's Ethical Affairs Campaign commented on the diversity of colleges' divestment policies, urging for campaigners to now focus their attention on "lobbying the colleges to follow suit."