The movement was initiated by the Zero Carbon Society, and later bolstered by Extinction RebellionVarsity

Investment is an important part of the financial strategy of both Cambridge University and its colleges. They grow their surplus capital in a variety of ways, placing it in investment funds, building houses, and, in the case of Trinity College, even buying the O2 concert arena in London.

But with growing awareness of the threats posed by climate change, organisations are under pressure to invest responsibly.

Arms, tobacco, and fossil fuels

Student concern about divestment has grown over the past decade. Campaigning was for a while led by the Students’ Union, then known as CUSU, through its Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) campaign. In 2010, the SRI called for the University to disinvest from companies involved in “human rights abuses”. The University had adopted a Statement of Investment Responsibility in June 2008, which stated that it would “balance” the “ethical nature of investments” against the primary aim of investing, which was “to maximize the financial return”.

In 2013, a Varsity investigation in collaboration with the SRI found that “many colleges” at the time had “a list of investment portfolios which include[d] major arms companies (including those manufacturing nuclear warheads and drones), tobacco manufacturers and fossil fuels companies.”

Two activist groups in particular have staged protests in support of divestment from fossil fuels: the student-led Cambridge Zero Carbon Society, and more recently the Cambridge branch of Extinction Rebellion (XR).

Cambridge Zero Carbon launched in earnest in 2015, when CUSU voted to award the society a grant of £600 to “kick-start” a divestment campaign. The society went on to coordinate an open letter, obtaining over 2,100 signatures and delivered to the University’s Ceremonial Officer at a 2016 rally.

The group also authored a pro-divestment report. Rowan Williams, who was Master of Magdalene College at the time, wrote a foreword to the report.

The working groups

Later that year, the first of two working groups set up by the University to issue recommendations on ethical investing published its report. Coal and tar sands investments were blacklisted, but the report did not propose full divestment.

A second working group was formed in 2017 to examine the advantages and disadvantages of divestment. As members of the University waited for the group to reach its conclusions, a draft report leaked to Varsity in 2018 suggested that full divestment would not be proposed.

Meanwhile, campaigning intensified. Alice Guillaume, the student representative on the working group, resigned in protest and three students from the Zero Carbon Society declared a hunger strike. The CEO of BP urged Cambridge management to resist divestment and “come to their senses”.

The Divestment Working Group report was released in 2018. As expected, the group again stopped short of recommending full divestment, instead setting out a series of other commitments to ethical investing. However, the conclusions were marred by revelations that two members of the working group were directly involved in proposed donations from the companies BP and BHP Billiton.

Peterhouse becomes first college to announce divestment

College finances are separate from those of the University, and college investments are not controlled by the University Council. In March 2018, Peterhouse announced it had withdrawn direct investments from fossil fuels, becoming the first college to divest. However, the College could still invest in funds exposed to fossil fuels.

Queens’ college announces partial divestment

In July 2018, Queens’ became the second college to commit to a substantial divestment when it announced that it would divest £55m of its endowment in equity investments in the fossil fuel industry, although it still holds indirect investments.

According to XR, partial divestment entails that an institution has “no direct investments” in fossil fuels and “has committed to never hold direct investments again”, but still holds indirect investments (through an intermediary investment fund).

Selwyn and Downing withdraw some investments from fossil fuel sector

After a mass protest and continued campaigning in the same month, Selwyn told Varsity in November 2018 that it had adopted a long-term view to divestment from the fossil fuels sector, which would eventually involve selling its investments in Shell.

Downing also announced that it would remove some indirect investments in the fossil fuels sector, having never held direct investments.

Emmanuel adopts Paris Accord principles in investment strategy

At the end of November 2018, Emmanuel integrated the principles of the 2015 Paris Accord on climate change in its investment portfolio, meaning that it would withdraw its investments in certain companies.

Selwyn partially divests from fossil fuel investments

Selwyn inched closer towards divestment in February 2019 when they announced that they had sold all of their direct investments, including a £890,000 holding in Royal Dutch Shell.

Clare Hall commits to full divestment

The first college to do so, Clare Hall announced in March 2019 that it would fully divest from the fossil fuel industries, withdrawing its £26.6 million endowment.

Emmanuel and Jesus announce partial divestment

Emmanuel and Jesus announced in May and September 2019 respectively that they had withdrawn all direct investments in fossil fuel companies.

XR carry out week-long blockade and dig up Trinity lawn

In February 2020, XRC launched a week-long roadblocking campaign, intending to “bring the city to a halt” to protest several Cambridge institutions’ failure to take action against climate change.

Drawing national attention, protesters dug up Trinity’s front lawn on the second day of XR’s Cambridge shutdown, and dumped the soil in Barclays bank on St. Andrew’s Street.

Extinction Rebellion begin campaign of action against non-divested colleges

In August 2020, XR began a ‘fresh wave’ of direct action against non-divested colleges. This came after a list of demands to the University and colleges, calling on them to divest by the end of July, were not met.

As part of this campaign, XR Cambridge activists charged with criminal damage of Trinity property returned to Trinity lawn, continuing their campaign against the College’s investments.

Newnham, Robinson, St John’s and Fitzwilliam announce partial divestment amidst XR’s campaign

Shortly after XR announced its campaign of action against non-divested colleges, four colleges - Newnham, Robinson, St John’s and Fitzwilliam - announced that they had all ceased to hold direct investments.

Extinction Rebellion launch ‘Summer Rebellion’ with ‘oily handed divestment march’

At the end of August 2020, XR activists marched through Cambridge, some with their hands covered in fake oil, to mark the beginning of its ‘Summer Rebellion’, reiterating demands that the University and its constituent colleges divest.

The University announces aims to divest from fossil fuels by 2030 in landmark decision

While the University failed to meet XR’s demands to divest by the end of August, in October 2020, it announced its aims to fully divest the £3.5 billion Cambridge University Endowment Fund (CUEF) from fossil fuel companies by 2030.

Lucy Cavendish and Christ’s announce commitment to fully divest

U-turning on its previous rejection of divestment, Christ’s announced, also in October 2020, that it would remove its direct and indirect investments in fossil fuels- a £3.5 billion endowment.

In the same month, Lucy Cavendish’s Governing Body voted to withdraw its direct holdings in fossil fuel industries.


Mountain View

Cambridge University Is divesting, now its faculties must cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry

Trinity Hall plans to partially divest, as St Catharine’s limits investments in fossil fuel and arms companies

In November 2020, Trinity Hall unveiled its plans to remove its direct holdings by May 2021, and to significantly reduce its indirect investments in fossil fuel industries by 2025. In the same month, St Catharine’s published its ethical investment policy which committed to not directly investing in companies with more than 10% of their business in fossil fuel, arms, tobacco or gambling industries, although it does not currently hold direct investments.

Pembroke and Trinity announce full divestment, while Selwyn develops investment policy

Trinity College announced in February this year that it had revised its investment policy, and would remove all direct and indirect investments by 2031.

In the same month Pembroke announced its commitment to remove its indirect investments in fossil fuel companies by 2023. The College did not hold direct investments in companies linked to fossil fuels, having divested from Shell and BP in 2019.

Selwyn also amended its investment policy in February, imposing stricter requirements on the College’s investments meaning it will only invest in funds which invest a maximum of 3% of their resources in fossil fuels by April 2021, and 1% by the end of 2022.

Corpus Christi and Newnham announce full divestment commitments

In March this year Corpus Christi announced that it would remove all its direct and indirect investments in fossil fuel companies by 2025, making it the fifth college to commit to full divestment.

While Newnham had already removed all indirect investments in fossil fuel companies from its holdings, the College announced last month in its ‘Statement of Investment Principles’ that it would divest from all “meaningful exposure to fossil fuels” by 2030, in line with the University's own commitments.


To date, 18 colleges have announced full or partial divestment plans, while 14 colleges are yet to commit to removing either direct or indirect investments. Four colleges - Gonville and Caius, St Catharine’s, King’s and Homerton - though they do not directly invest in fossil fuel industries, do not meet XR’s definition of partial divestment, since they have not ruled out holding direct investments in the future. Churchill, Hughes Hall, St. Edmund’s, Wolfson, Sidney Sussex, Murray Edwards, Fitzwilliam, Girton, Magdalene, and Clare have not made public information about their investments, and are not currently thought to have divested from fossil fuels.