Oxford's decision to divest from direct investment in the fossil fuel industry has been welcomed, yet demands for universities like Oxford and Cambridge to radically change their ethical and investment practices continue.Louis Ashworth

Last week, Oxford University passed a motion, stipulating the University’s formal divestment from fossil fuels. The resolution was brought by the student-led Oxford Climate Justice Campaign (OCJC), whose tireless efforts over almost ten years are undoubtedly responsible for this achievement.

Oxford University’s decision is distinct from the pledges of 68 other UK universities who have committed to the policy of ‘full divestment’ as defined by the Fossil Free Movement. Oxford will remove its direct investments in fossil fuels, but instead of also removing their indirect investments they will pursue a policy of engagement with these funds. This would involve lobbying fund managers to redirect funds away from companies which are not in line with a ’hard’ net zero 2050 target.

“Emerging from this pandemic creates a unique opportunity to reconsider the world we want to live in.”

According to the statement made by OCJC, it is practically impossible for any fossil fuel company to meet this standard due to the current limitations of carbon capture technology, so the company would effectively have to cease production. As such, the annual reviews mandated by the resolution will inevitably require Oxford to reduce the exposure of its indirect investments to fossil fuels.

The press coverage of Oxford’s pledges has been overwhelmingly positive. However, some concerns remain: this is not an outright cutting of ties with the fossil fuel industry, which OCJC have acknowledged is still a concern for some campaign members. The strategy will result in gradual reductions but there is no fixed timescale, meaning the institution maintains its complicity in destructive extractive practices for as long as money filters through. Their policy of active engagement assumes that an investor has enough individual influence to radically alter the business model of a company: you only have to look to the failures of even the biggest sustainable coalitions, such as the Climate Action 100+, to see that engagement cannot deliver urgently required results.

The climate crisis is pressing: unprecedented global action would be required to limit warming to the Paris-agreed target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, which we are currently not on track to meet. Even then, the consequences of 1.5 degrees warming will still be devastating for many regions, overwhelmingly countries in the Global South, with the least historic responsibility for carbon emissions. There is not enough time to simply ‘engage’ with companies who continue to extract fossil fuels and destroy front-line communities.

“Cambridge cannot afford to continue with its slow and unambitious response to the emerging realities of the climate crisis...”

Cambridge lags even further behind Oxford, having made only negligible commitments to divestment: the University Council ruled against direct investment in coal and tar sands in 2016, but has since also rejected full divestment. However, continued campaign efforts of students and staff have pressured the University to commission a new report investigating the feasibility of divestment, which was expected to emerge in May or June — it is yet unclear whether the Coronavirus pandemic will affect its release. Although some may contend that the damage done by Coronavirus to the University’s profits renders divestment inconceivable, it is imperative that we don’t sacrifice the solutions to one crisis on the altar of another. Across the US, for example, climate legislation is being rolled back in an attempt to boost the economy in the face of COVID-19. This is unacceptable.

With climate scientists warning that humanity faces “untold suffering” without immediate action, even full divestment falls short. Both Cambridge and Oxford continue to legitimise fossil fuel companies by maintaining links which extend beyond just investment. Shell- and BP-branded educational materials are the most visible evidence of universities bolstering the social license of these companies, but there’s much worse behind closed doors. Cambridge accepts money for research that will actively benefit fossil fuel companies. A £6 million donation from Shell for oil extraction research is one recent example, with the latest Zero Carbon report revealing that research undertaken at the BP Institute has led to increased fossil fuel profits of between $300 million and $3 billion per year.


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However, Cambridge’s ties with the fossil fuel industry cannot be considered in isolation: they are just one thread in a broader web of the university’s connections with ethically bankrupt organisations — with arms companies such as BAE systems and Rolls Royce, for example. Militarisation and the climate crisis are interrelated; exemplified by the US military being the single largest carbon emitter in the world (excepting entire nations). The global military-industrial complex is essential for driving the neo-colonial extraction which fossil fuel companies instigate around the world, and the original colonial violence of fossil fuel extraction continues today as indigenous peoples are driven from their land. Our educational institutions cannot work towards climate justice unless they recognise that divestment, demilitarisation and decolonisation are crucially interconnected.

Emerging from this pandemic creates a unique opportunity to reconsider the world we want to live in. The fossil fuel industry must necessarily decline if we are to have any chance of maintaining a liveable planet, but the plummeting of oil prices triggered by COVID-19 has laid bare the dangers of an unmanaged collapse. The University has a responsibility to aid a just transition by cutting ties sooner rather than later, buying time to protect the livelihoods of people and communities rather than risking the mass unemployment that results when industries fail.

Cambridge cannot afford to continue with its slow and unambitious response to the emerging realities of the climate crisis: it must immediately cut ties with the fossil fuel industry whose destructive practices are incompatible not only with a sustainable future, but with all notions of social justice. Radical proactivity is required of world-leading institutions: change must happen, and it must happen now.

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