On Friday, hundreds of schoolchildren marched through Cambridge to call for action on climate changeTom Dorrington

One of the banners at the schoolchildren’s climate-change protests on Friday read, ‘We’re missing Maths and English. You’re missing the point.’ The same might be said of the University administration’s response to the call for fossil fuel divestment. The report of the Divestment Working Group (DWG) which Dame Athene Donald defends is a key part of that response.

First a point of fact. In discussing the revelations over the negotiations with the mining company BHP in a Varsity Opinion piece last week, Dame Athene says, “I talked to a senior representative of BHP as part of the evidence-gathering sessions and they stressed that only about 5% of the coal they mined was burned; their main focus was on ‘metallurgical’ coal, stuff that is used in steel production, for instance, a fact that may not be obvious from recent discussions.” But metallurgical coal is burned. It is turned into coke and burned in making steel. Its carbon ends up in the atmosphere. It looks as if Dame Athene was too easily hoodwinked by the BHP PR operation.

Sponsoring things is a significant part of BP’s efforts to hang on to their credibility as a responsible company

The DWG was set up in response to the divestment Grace of two years ago. The University Council promised a report that looked into ‘the advantages and disadvantages’ of divestment. Unfortunately the DWG did not deliver that. In fairness to them, they were not actually asked to do so. When the Working Group was set up after a delay of several months, its terms of reference did not ask it to look at ‘the advantages and disadvantages’ of divestment, but rather ‘to consider the question of disinvestment … more broadly’. Thus, Dame Athene and her colleagues did exactly what they were asked. The overarching principle adopted by the Group that “[t]he University in its investment, research, education, estate and policy decision making should take urgent and tangible action to deliver a carbon neutral future” is a laudable one, but we still haven’t had a report that directly considers the advantages and disadvantages of divestment.

It is no surprise that the divestment working group did not recommend divestment, and it’s difficult to see that it ever could have. When the Zero Carbon representative Alice Guillaume realised the group’s direction, she very honourably resigned.

A crucial question is how serious fossil fuel companies are about transferring to renewables. Dame Athene is hopeful. “The fossil fuel companies from which we took evidence I believe are sincere in their goals of changing their own strategies, both towards more efficient energy production and use, but also to sustainable sources of energy.” Sincerity, however, should not be mistaken for doing the right thing.

What is needed is not unicorn technology

None of the large fossil fuel companies has a business model that comes anywhere near achieving carbon neutrality in the timescale that is needed. The latest IPCC Report gives us 12 years to take decisive steps, and we need to be carbon neutral by the middle of the century at the latest. Meanwhile the oil giants are still prospecting and developing new fields, when we already know that 80% of the currently proven carbon reserves will have stay in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic climate collapse. Shareholder engagement hasn’t substantially affected this. Only divestment will send a strong enough message.

Many who argue that divestment isn’t the answer, including Dame Athene, point to market based solutions such as carbon pricing, or technological ones such as carbon capture and storage. These are distractions. Neither currently work effectively anywhere in the world. But they don’t even have to for the business-as-usual merchants to be able use them as an excuse to continue their work of destroying our environment. All that is necessary is that they are sufficiently credible to put up enough of a smokescreen to throw concerned citizens off the scent.

What is needed is not unicorn technology, or a renewed beseeching of the capitalist deities that have got us into this mess, but step change in our attitudes leading to concerted action by the governments of the world. 80 years ago the economies of the world mobilised for a world war. An effort at least as large is needed now in the face of the current danger.


Mountain View

‘The whole process was flawed. It was flawed from the beginning.’ Guillaume speaks out.

Sponsoring things is a significant part of BP’s efforts to hang on to their credibility as a responsible company. They may not set the research agenda at our own BP Institute, as Dame Athene says, but that is not the point. They could be sponsoring anything. A research institute in Assyriology would do the job just as well. They would be publicly linked with Cambridge University and that would act as cover for the fact that their activities are threatening our civilisation.

Talking of Assyriology, BP are currently sponsoring the Ashurbanipal exhibition at the British Museum, the strap line of the protests nails it exactly - ‘BP - Sponsoring the past, destroying the future.’ We need to show that we have seen through the smokescreen. Divestment does just that.