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Pressure mounts on British universities to ‘come clean’ on fossil fuel investments

Paradise Papers revelations have added to long-standing concerns about universities’ fossil fuel investments - and students are now upping the ante.

Students at Bristol University on 2017's day of fossil fuel divestment action

Universities are seen as bastions of knowledge and progress – and often have policies that state their commitment to a just and sustainable future.

So the fact that many still invest heavily in fossil fuels - an industry that fuels injustice, climate deaths and environmental collapse - is seen by campaigners as untenable.

Last month students across the UK escalated their mobilisation against their universities’ complicity in the climate crisis. The student fossil fuel divestment movement aims not only to remove funds from companies that are contributing to climate change, but to remove the social license of these corporations.

Divestment commitments by universities are viewed as part of a broader project to ensure that investments in the fossil fuel industry ethically blacklisted for wider society, too.

Over the past few years, pressure on universities to divest all their endowments from fossil fuels – by students supported by student campaign group People and Planet and the National Union of Students (NUS) - has achieved remarkable success. Over one-third of universities (60) have committed to divestment, which equates to a £11 billion loss for fossil fuel corporations (and hopefully an equal investment for sustainable generation and community energy projects).

But there is more to be done. Some universities have repeatedly rejected the moral, social, environmental and financial arguments. So, as the COP23 climate talks concluded in Bonn, some of those students united – in active solidarity with Indigenous Peoples and frontline communities – to up their resistance against their institutions’ continued collusion with the fossil fuel industry.

Lizzy Haughton, a student activist at Manchester University, says that the university has taken “no action to divest” – despite a three year campaign, and despite the fact it is the only UK university with ‘social responsibility’ as one of their top three values, and that their £7.6 million investments in fossil fuel companies make up only 3.9% of their endowment fund. “We had no choice but to call for a national escalation in campaign tactics,” says Haughton, “to highlight the disregard universities are showing towards their students, staff and the climate.”

Manchester’s students teamed up with Boycott Divest Sanctions (BDS) and other university campaigns. Together, they marched noisily from Manchester Metropolitan University (which came top in the People and Planet University League 2017, and has divested) to disrupt the Board of Governors meeting. The campaign now has proposals going forward at the next university investment meeting, and has gathered 16,000 signatures on a petition in less than one month. “Momentum for divestment is strong,” says Haughton.

Students at Loughborough UniversityStudent campaign groups at Cambridge, Loughborough, Oxford, Leeds, University College London (UCL), Bristol and Plymouth joined Manchester in the national day of action.

The University of Cambridge issued a report in 2016, stating that its investments would reflect the institution’s values – which include environmental protection. Despite this, the Paradise Papers revealed a chain of offshore investments starting at Oxbridge, and financing Royal Dutch Shell, a company pursuing deep water exploration of fossil fuels. The Cambridge Zero Carbon society at the University of Cambridge staged a dramatic protest outside the iconic King’s College Chapel. A dozen black-clad members set off black smoke grenades, holding a banner saying 'Cambridge #ComeClean'.

Mia Finnamore, a member of Cambridge Zero Carbon, says: “Cambridge University has always been at the cutting edge of scientific research. However, as long as it invests in fossil fuels, it capitalises on the deaths of millions of people suffering from the effects of climate change and contributes to a bleak future of catastrophic climate change. The university has the responsibility to act as a leader nationally and globally. When it divests and reinvests in renewable energies, it will send a strong political message to its planetary audience.”

A group of 21 Cambridge academics have joined the call for full divestment and transparency, organising a discussion with the governing body. “The pressure on the university to act is “stronger than ever,” says a representative from Cambridge Zero Carbon. “Full divestment from fossil fuels is not only financially prudent, it is also a moral imperative.”

Also in light of the Paradise Papers, students at Oxford doused themselves in ‘oil’ outside the major administrative office, and ceremoniously cleaned it up. ”We were met by ten-plus security guards who would not let us deliver a letter to the Vice-Chancellor,” says Elana Sulakshana of the campaign group. “We demand accountability, and we will be back.”

Students at Plymouth University, too, were met with what they felt was a disproportionately defensive reaction to their divestment action. “The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Judith Petts, had ignored our email asking ther to sign the Fossil Fuel Declaration [a document committing universities to never investing in climate-destructive industries], says student campaigner Emily Adams, “so we delivered the message in person.” Three security guards awaited them; “a calm group of students, with words as their only weapon.”

After some deterrence tactics by the security guards, three members of senior leadership came out of the building to meet the students. After speech-making and a discussion, the University’s Head of Sustainability agreed it was baffling that the university wouldn’t sign the Declaration.

The Fossil Free UCL group took a more ‘loving’ approach to their institution’s £12.4 million investments in fossil fuel companies. They held a symbolic wedding between their Provost Michael Arthur and the fossil fuel industry. The master of ceremonies was the Chair of UCL Council, Dame Deanne Julius, who previously worked for Royal Dutch Shell and BP. “We protested the vested interests at UCL, and showed our frustration that our views (shared by the majority of students and staff) are not being taken seriously,” says a spokesperson from the group. “It seems UCL is being exploited as a money-making business rather than the professional academic institution it should be. UCL needs to be on the right side of history.”

Bristol students also opted for a highly visual action, building a huge pipeline to demonstrate the fossil fuel extraction projects that the university is funding. Last year, the campaign achieved a commitment from the institution to divest from all companies that derive more than 5% of their revenue from coal and tar sands by January 2018, but it is pushing for movement on gas and oil and a boycott of Barclays, to match the students’ union’s own. “I am really proud to be a member of this group,” says campaigner Papatya O’Reilly. “The easy way to respond to last year's half-baked policy would have been to disband, but we've bounced back with an incredible amount of energy.”

History confirms the power of collective action by students. Medieval students formed collectives and rioted. The 1960s saw revolutionary student mobilisations worldwide. University campuses were sites of resistance vital to the divestment campaign which contributed to the demise of South Africa’s Apartheid system. And the fossil fuel divestment movement - at universities and beyond - is proving similarly powerful. Fossil fuel corporations have five times more oil, gas and coal in reserves than climate scientists state it is safe to burn; the overwhelming scientific consensus is that we must keep it in the ground. “Now more than ever,” says Jade Begay of the Indigenous Environmental Network, “we need an international movement to stand with communities on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction.” And Begay believes that divestment has a vital role to play. “Urge your universities to do the morally right thing,” she says, “and rapidly divest from fossil fuels.”

Robbie Young, NUS Vice-President (Society & Citizenship), says, “In 2016, 14% of university and 5% of Further Education college governors were linked to the fossil fuel industry, and £18.7 million-worth of university fossil fuel research took place. The conflicts of interest here are clear, and we endorse the national day of action, for students to pressure their institutions to take action in solidarity with indigenous and frontline communities.”

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