The inquiry, authored by Nigel Topping, former UN climate champion for COP26, said that companies like BP and Shell are not aligned with the University’s decarbonisation ambitionsROSIE BRADBURY/COMPOSITE: NOELLA CHYE

Rebecca Siddall: 'We are fiddling while Rome burns'

Well, not quite – but as I write, wildfires have reached nine Mediterranean countries, and just three weeks ago we saw the highest global average temperature on record. It’s hard not to feel that the time for half-measures is over.

Last week also saw the publication of the Topping report, an independent inquiry commissioned by the University Council to investigate whether Cambridge should end funding ties with fossil fuel companies. This was spurred by a Grace submitted by 84 academics, calling for a ban on collaborations with companies who are involved in building new fossil fuel infrastructure, exploring new fossil fuel reserves, or associated with organisations that lobby against climate legislation.

The inquiry, authored by Nigel Topping, former UN climate champion for COP26, said that companies like BP and Shell are not aligned with the University’s decarbonisation ambitions “on any level”, and that accepting funding poses “high reputational risk”.

“Cambridge ought to be setting the standard for more strict climate policies, rather than playing it safe”

Given the University’s existing divestment strategy, Topping notes that it would be pertinent to expand such a policy to all University-level funding. The actual amount of direct fossil fuel funding, predominantly from Shell and BP, is just 0.1% of total University income (although this is still a hefty £3 million per year): a small enough sum that it could be considered an insignificant contributor to climate change, but equally a small enough sum that the University could easily do without it.

Topping goes into great detail about the difficulties with assessing the alignment of companies with emissions goals, but ultimately suggests that the whole process be simplified by relying on the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) rather than making internal decisions that may be swayed by the personal opinion of committee members. Another point of contention is balancing the risks to the University of either doing nothing or doing too much, and Topping suggests a middle ground that centres academic freedom, but still recognises “the global mismatch between clear science and political commitments and weak action” that risks alienating the student population in particular.

Ultimately, the resulting report largely endorses the Grace, albeit with caveats. Thankfully, Topping agrees that the University must become a leader in climate action, and suggests a far from insignificant £1bn investment towards this that would ensure Cambridge’s position as a world leader in climate research. However, he cautions against prohibiting anything but financial collaboration, on the basis of freedom of speech. Furthermore, the report argues that companies involved in “facilitating” fossil fuel expansion should not be included – only those directly accountable for the industry can be prohibited.

This is perhaps the most disappointing part of the report, as it severely curtails the accountability of broader power structures for climate change. Many scholars label our current epoch the “Capitalocene” – wherein a wider ring of “facilitating” companies are responsible for extracting resources within a capitalist economic system, leading to mass extinction. As a highly wealthy university and a centre of UK research, Cambridge ought to be setting the standard for more strict climate policies, rather than playing it safe.

The Topping report itself was a mitigation, instigated as an alternative to allowing members of Regent’s House to vote on the Grace. Had the motion been allowed to progress, Cambridge would have become the first leading university to hold a democratic vote on this topic – and we may well have seen a very different result from the Topping report. Extending the severing of financial ties to “fossil fuel facilitating” companies might seem extreme. But it’s no match for the speed with which the effects of climate breakdown are catching up with us.

As students, we’re often told that we are the ones who will effect future change; but unfortunately, it is the people in power right now who need to make the changes. All we can do is ask.

Andrea Rogolino: 'It’s all about reputation'

The huge uproar on the ties between the University and oil companies that has struck the walls and streets of Cambridge in the past few months – the dismissal of ExxonMobil and other companies from the Chemical Engineering teaching consortium first, the Student Union motion in support of the Fossil Free Research campaign, and finally a debated report on a Grace called to stop funding from fossil fuel firms – can be summarised in a single, overarching matter: reputation.

Fossil fuel companies allocate funding to a world-renowned university to bolster their reputation. The University now considers refusing those funding to save its reputation. There is not much that scientists can add to the discussion, nor can they advise the Regent House on the decisions to take. Scientists can only attempt to steer the focus of the debate on the more practical implications of such a decision. What would be the tangible impact of the University cutting bonds once and for all with oil companies?

“If it is all about preserving the image of a righteous, distinguished institution, then maybe we are fighting the wrong battle”

Well, for a start, it is worth reminding that, although it is true that the University of Cambridge has  received more than £10 million from fossil fuel companies in the past years, these financial resources only amounted to 0.1% of the total income in the years 2021-2022. It is safe to say that Cambridge is not building their future on the shoulders of oil tycoons.

On the other hand, this does not mean that such fundings are insignificant. The recent report by former UN Climate Change High Level Champion for COP26 Nigel Topping addresses an important point on researchers’ freedom of action. Several ongoing and planned cutting-edge research projects resulted from a collaboration between academics and experienced companies.

Some of these research efforts might even lead to real-world technologies for sustainability. Important achievements in energy storage or carbon capture and utilisation might never see the light as a result of the drastic banishment of industries concerned with fossils (especially those only having indirect connections with fossil-extracting companies, which would also be denied any contact with the University if the Grace passed).


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The Committee on Benefactions and External and Legal Affairs (CBELA) was initiated in Cambridge in 2018 precisely to guarantee that external donations are in line with the University’s goals, including going net zero by 2050. The CBELA could therefore judge the validity of research projects funded by fossil fuel companies. Rejecting them on principle would be simply a whim to protect Cambridge’s spotless reputation.

What we need is a comprehensive metric to assess the benefits that fossil companies receive from financing the University (is it merely greenwashing or does that result in a net increase of their financial and political power?) versus the troubles that the University might face by keeping accepting money from Shell and BP.

If it is all about preserving the image of a righteous, distinguished institution, then maybe we are fighting the wrong battle, because big companies will find other wells where to pour their money into.