Cambridge University's decision to divest caame after five years of student campaigningGetty Images

On October 1st 2020 the University of Cambridge pledged to withdraw its direct and indirect investments from the polluting and exploitative fossil fuel industry. The decision was historic, with Cambridge’s £3.5bn endowment fund being the largest of any higher education institution in Europe, and marks the University’s recognition of the significant role that fossil fuels play in pushing the planet ever deeper into the current climate catastrophe. This decision was made after five years of student-led campaigning from Cambridge Zero Carbon which in 2019 coordinated a democratic motion calling on the University to produce fully-costed strategies for divestment.

Yet this break between the University and the fossil fuel industry is far from clean. As Zero Carbon has comprehensively and cogently outlined in its report on dismantling the fossil fuel industry, by allowing fossil fuel companies to sponsor professorships and studentships, hosting these companies at careers fairs, and participating in other collaborative endeavours, the University continues to enable the likes of BP and Royal Dutch Shell to undertake greenwashing on campus, meaning that these companies advance an image of themselves as future-orientated and environmentally sound while still relentlessly drilling for oil and gas.

A prime example of this strategy of greenwashing is the Cambridge Chemistry Department’s annual BP Sustainability Lecture, which took place (virtually) in January. These lectures celebrate and champion fossil fuel companies such as BP as pioneers of renewable energy, encouraging STEM students to pursue careers with them and signalling to researchers that they are legitimate businesses to work with. However, these events fail to address the disastrous consequences of the fossil fuel industry’s business-as-usual approach, and how these companies lobby against climate change legislation while simultaneously entertaining empty discussions on sustainability. This is precisely why, in previous years, Zero Carbon have orchestrated direct actions at these lectures, drawing attention to the deep injustices perpetuated by fossil fuel companies within the context of capitalism-driven planetary warming and ecological disaster.

“Despite what they would have you believe, fossil fuel firms are far from leading the charge on renewables.”

Despite what they would have you believe, fossil fuel firms are far from leading the charge on renewables. In 2020, Chevron and ExxonMobil invested only 1% of their budgets in renewables, with BP investing only 4%. In contrast, upwards of 80% of their social media posts focussed on renewables, natural gas as a ‘clean fuel’, and other sustainability jargon. They need social license, acceptance and approval from the general public to continue to operate and they know they cannot obtain this without greenwashing. The real investment in renewables is – unsurprisingly – coming from renewable energy companies (which are increasingly outperforming fossil fuel companies) and not, in fact, companies built to extract and burn fossil fuels.

Not only are fossil fuel companies not currently investing in renewables, they have no plans to do so in any meaningful way. Throughout 2020 a number of the largest oil companies, including Shell, BP and Total, made a big show of announcing ‘net zero’ targets and commitments to cut the emissions from their operations (and sometimes even their products). But across the board their pledges fall short: independent assessment from the Transition Pathway Initiative found that none of their plans aligned with the Paris Agreement. And while their plans to reduce emissions are shaky at best, relying on yet-to-exist technology and carbon offset forests that might go up in flames, they remain transparent about their plans to continue developing and deploying fossil fuel infrastructure, and ensuring that fossil fuels are a part of society’s energy provision for decades to come (as they predict below).

“Not only are fossil fuel companies not currently investing in renewables, they have no plans to do so in any meaningful way.”

It is not enough for scientists to argue that Shell or BP’s money is needed to fund renewables research. We do need more money in research, and certainly investment in renewables research, but that doesn’t have to come from industry. As economist Mariana Mazzucato points out, all of the major technology in today’s smartphones came from government-funded research. The same could be true of the renewable technology of the future which could be funded by the government for the public good.

The University’s science departments are informed by ethics guidelines and best practices but, nonetheless, still accept money from the very companies that are fuelling climate change, ecological destruction and biodiversity loss. For climate activists and campaigners, this is senseless and unreasonable conduct, even before considering the human rights abuses that have been carried out by these companies, such as being complicit in the deaths of climate activists in Nigeria or failing to compensate Mexican communities after the Deepwater Horizon Spill. Climate justice issues have been notoriously neglected by university science departments in their discussions on green energy and sustainability, and without acknowledgement of the struggles of those on the front lines of the climate crisis – the communities in the Global South who are leading the battle against climate change – their environmental efforts will fail to transcend mere greenwashing.


Mountain View

Cambridge responds to the University’s ‘landmark decision’ to fully divest

When confronted with the enormous wealth of the fossil fuel industry, scientists are called to remember that their work is always political. The potential severity of the climate crisis cannot be overstated, and just how bad it gets will in part be a result of who is seen as a legitimate, fair actor in the coming decades. Fossil fuel companies are anything but, and science faculties and institutions cannot continue to endorse them. Doing so only benefits them, to the detriment of us all.