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Universities Urged to Cut Fossil Fuel Ties

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Posted on Oct 21, 2013
Environmental Illness Network (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Alex Kirby, Climate News Network

This piece first appeared at Climate News Network.

LONDON—Campaign groups in the UK say the fossil fuel industry is too deeply entwined financially with British universities and urge them to disinvest within the next five years.

The groups have published a report, Knowledge and Power – Fossil Fuel Universities, in which they accuse the universities of allowing the industry to hide behind a coating of greenwash.

It warns: “Universities offer their credibility for cash when they sign deals sponsoring staff positions, buildings, conferences and lectures with fossil fuel companies. These deals play a key role in shoring up the fossil fuel industry’s public image.”

The report, which calls on universities to phase out fossil fuel research and refocus their work towards climate solutions, says universities have an estimated £5.2 billion invested in the fossil fuel industry – £2,083 for every student in the UK.

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“A small proportion of the wealth of university endowment funds is invested directly in the shares of oil and gas companies,” the report says. “A far greater proportion supports the industry by investments held in pensions, unit trusts, and other financial products.”

Executives revered

The report is critical of the admiring relationship it says exists between academia and industry, claiming: “Fossil fuel executives are revered by universities, invited to speak at prestigious events, and given honorary degrees. Senior executives from BP and Shell have received 20 awards in the last decade alone. . .”

Of the 250 papers published by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, the report says, only three are on renewables. The Institute receives more than half of its grants from oil and gas companies, but might argue that this could hardly be otherwise, given the relative wealth of the hydrocarbon sector and its opponents.

The report, which was in part crowdsourced online from students and staff at universities across the country, is published on behalf of three campaign groups: Platform, which describes itself as “a London-based arts, human rights and environmental justice organisation”; People & Planet, a British student network seeking to end world poverty, defend human rights and protect the environment; and 350.org, a global grassroots climate change campaign seeking to prevent C02 emissions increasing to more than 350 parts per million (most countries have agreed to aim for a 450 ppm threshold).

It is timed to coincide with the start of a divestment campaign in Europe, to be launched with a Fossil-Free Europe tour by Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, and other prominent campaigners.

Efforts to persuade investors to divest from fossil fuel companies include a study released earlier this month by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University, which concluded that fossil fuel divestment campaigning posed “the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies”.

Louise Hazan, climate campaigns and communications manager at People & Planet, told Climate News Network: “Universities are public institutions that are meant to serve the public interest.

Research undermined

“They lead the world in research on climate change, but that research is completely undermined when they are both funded by the fossil fuel industry and investing in it.

“We realise that we will depend on these fuels for years to come, but we believe that our universities have a responsibility to lead society away from them.

“Beyond their direct investments, which are relatively small in the scale of things, UK universities’ investment decisions and research priorities can play an important role in helping society to wean itself off fossil fuels and hasten its transition to a low-carbon future.”

Bill McKibben said: “Severing our ties with the companies digging up the carbon won’t bankrupt them – but it will start to politically bankrupt them, and make their job of dominating the planet’s politics that much harder.

“Universities have a central role to play in this regard, since they are one of the few places in our civilization where reason still stands a good chance of prevailing over power.”


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