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Glasgow University recommendation to stop investing in fossil fuels is an important step into the future

Glasgow has become the first university in the UK to move towards divesting from fossil fuels. This is a major step forward for the UK's climate movement.

Miriam Wilson
18 July 2014
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Last November, myself and a small group of fellow Glasgow University students braved a chilly Scottish morning to stand outside our university library dressed as strange dinosaurs. Our aim: talk to students, and ask them to sign a petition calling on our university to ditch its investments in fossil fuel companies. After acquiring a few hundred signatures scrawled on scrappy pieces of A4, we retreated to our uni cafeteria to huddle for warmth over cups of tea and admire our swag.

From these humble beginnings, our campaign quickly grew. With our petition reaching over 1,000 signatures in just a few weeks, we gained the support of our Students' Representative Council, hosted a high-profile panel discussion on divestment, produced a 200-page campaign brief, and gained the attention of our university's senior management by wrapping our university building with our printed petition.

Nine months on, a working group set up by the University of Glasgow to research socially responsible investment has recommended full divestment from the fossil fuel industry. The advice was presented a few weeks ago at a closed meeting of Glasgow University Court, the university’s decision-making body. The working group has recommended that the university puts a freeze on new investments in oil, coal and gas, winds down its existing holdings over the next ten years, and where possible re-invests in green industries.

The recommendation is huge. By October, Glasgow University could be the first UK University to divest from fossil fuels. As a world-class educational institution, with assets of at least £18 million invested in the fossil fuel industry, Glasgow could spearhead the movement towards a more sustainable future.

It doesn't make sense for our university to invest in an industry whose business model, if carried out, will catastrophically destroy our climate. Investments are about the future, and the fossil fuel future is a bleak one. Unfortunately, we will never convince the fossil fuel industry itself to stop digging up fossil fuels; it's what they do. But these companies need investors to keep themselves alive. Investors not only support fossil fuel companies financially, but they also provide them with a badge of social legitimacy. By convincing investors like universities to turn their backs on the fossil fuel industry, we can tarnish the industry's respectable reputation, and start to break its political stranglehold. Only with the fossil fuel industry's power weakened can we begin to move away from fossil fuel dependency, and to develop just solutions to climate change.

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Glasgow students demanding divestment

Given the urgency of climate change threat, the ten-year timeframe for divestment which the Glasgow University working group has recommended is much too lengthy. The Fossil Free campaign instead advocates phasing out existing investments over a five-year period; long enough not to threaten any returns on investments, whilst also being rapid enough to have a meaningful impact.

The decision on possible divestment at Glasgow University was delayed primarily due to the concerns of a few members of Court that fossil fuel divestment might weaken returns on the university’s investments and negatively impact sponsorship from the industry. However, studies have shown that screening out fossil fuels has added little risk to investment portfolios, and in-fact, fossil free portfolios are performing as well or slightly better than the market average. Research funding at the University of Glasgow from the fossil fuel industry is also small, currently standing at less than 0.2% of the university's research holdings. The financial risk that the university will expose itself to by choosing to divest from fossil fuels is minimal.

But whilst divestment might not threaten the university's investment returns, it does represent a significant threat to the status quo of fossil fuel dependency, and it is likely that this is the real reason why certain members of Glasgow University Court have temporarily blocked the decision to divest. The reality of climate change is a difficult one to confront. The notion that the fossil fuel industry is a safe and profitable investment is a comforting one. But this business-as-usual approach to investment is no longer tenable. As global warming rapidly accelerates, those who own shares in the fossil fuel industry are complicit in profiting from the wreckage of our stable climate, and they must be held accountable.

If Glasgow University divests in October, the timing could not be better. With the independence referendum fast approaching, Scotland is currently under the global spotlight, and whatever the outcome of the vote, divestment from fossil fuel companies at this time would represent a bold step towards creating a greener and more progressive Scotland.

Divesting sends a powerful public message about the clear and present danger posed by continued reliance on fossil fuels, whilst also signalling to current fossil fuel investors that the longer-term odds are moving against them. That is why it is so important that Glasgow University Court follows the recommendation made by students and its own members, and fully commits to rapidly divesting from fossil fuels.

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