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On Monday 18 May, the University of Oxford confirmed that, on ethical grounds, it will exclude companies involved in the extraction of coal and tar sands from its direct investments.
University Court passed policy that states that it will also ‘avoid future investments’ in coal and tar sands, but failed to agree to disclose its investments publicly. Students, academics and alumni are celebrating this victory after campaigning for the university and its colleges to divest from the fossil fuel industry for over a year.
‘Oxford may be the greatest university on our planet, and if anyone thought its great age might keep it from shaping the future, this decision should prove them wrong. Today it has offered great leadership on the crisis of our time.’
Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org
Oxford University is a global leader on climate change research and its Smith School produces influential research on fossil fuels becoming ‘Stranded Assets’. UK universities invest an estimated £5.2 billion annually in the fossil fuel industry; the University of Oxford’s endowment is worth around £3.8 billion and is one of the biggest in the UK.
‘Many world leaders have studied under Oxford University’s spires. They should be taking notes today. The lesson is: it’s time to phase out coal and axe tar sands.’
Andrew Taylor, Fossil Free Campaigns Manager at People & Planet
The University of Oxford joins four other UK universities which have made commitments to exclude fossil fuels from their investments: Glasgow University, Bedfordshire University, the University of London SOAS and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Last week, the University of Edinburgh decided not to withdraw all of its £290m investment in fossil fuels, but to ‘engage before divestment’ and to pull out of coal and tar sands companies.
Decisions are expected at Manchester University, Leeds University and Warwick University over the next couple of months.
The victory is the result of a campaign which successfully gathered support from thousands of students, academics and alumni. The Student Union (OUSU) endorsed divestment, alongside 41 college common rooms, representing 12,500 students. Over a hundred academics signed an open letter calling for action from the university.
Divestment campaigners are calling for UK universities to freeze new investments in fossil fuels and withdraw their existing holdings over a five-year period in response to concerns over climate change.
Campaigners argue unburnable fossil fuel reserves represent a ‘carbon bubble’ and are an inflated investment, as research by the International Energy Agency indicates there is at least three times more fossil fuel in reserve that could be exploited today than is compatible with keeping global temperatures below 2°C, and over 10 times more fossil fuel resource than could be exploited in the future.
Fossil fuel divestment is the fastest-growing divestment movement in history and is continuing to gain momentum. Around 200 institutions globally, with a combined asset size of over $50 billion, have committed to divest, including the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, the British Medical Association and the Church of England. Click here for a full list of the institutions that have divested.
‘By excluding investments in coal and tar-sands extraction, the University of Oxford demonstrates that universities can carry out their academic mission while also acting with moral integrity in their investment choices.’
Dr Felix Pinkert Lecturer of Philosophy, University of Oxford
However, the decision has received some criticism from campaigners as it applies only to directly owned shares, not all investments made by the university’s fund, and does not commit the university to divesting from all fossil fuels.
In particular, the exclusions for coal and tar sands only kick in for companies where over 10% of their production comes from either of these sources. This means Oxford can continue to invest in companies like Shell and BP even though they have significant tar sands projects.
Rather than the end of the campaign, activists see this as an important victory and the first step towards a fully sustainable investment policy that would include divestment from all fossil fuel companies.
‘When it comes to big oil this is a cautious first step. Tar sands need to be kept in the ground and universities should divest from any company digging them out. If you live in the shadow of tar sand extraction and your baby is air lifted to hospital after drinking the water after a spill, it doesn’t matter if under 10% of the culprit’s production comes from tar sands.’
Andrew Taylor, Fossil Free Campaigns Manager at People & Planet
In addition, the decision does not commit the university to increasing transparency around the university’s investments. Currently the university does not publicly disclose which companies it invests in and has rejected attempts to obtain the information through Freedom of Information requests.
Critics are concerned that there may be loopholes in the agreement which the university could exploit to later overturn today’s decision.
‘While we are pleased with today’s results, we as students feel that transparency is an issue within the university structures. Full disclosure of the university’s investments should only confirm what they have told us today.’
Cara Turton-Chambers, Oxford University Fossil Free student campaigner
University of Oxford alumni added their voice to the student and staff campaign with over 850 pledging to withhold donations to the University of Oxford until it fully divests.
‘With the decision today the university has taken a step forward, but not a big enough one. I, with others, have decided to hand back my degree, in protest. This is not just a question of integrity for me. I want to use the privilege having it gives me to try and shake things up; to use my power to draw attention to others.’
Sunniva Taylor, an Oxford alumna
Furthermore, 70 alumni, including green energy entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett and journalist George Monbiot, will be handing back their Oxford University degrees this Saturday (23 May), as the University has not committed to divest from all fossil fuel companies.
‘I welcome the decision by Oxford University to avoid investment in coal and tar sands, it’s a positive statement. But I’d like to see a commitment to divestment from all fossil fuels. The University is raising significant funds for investment in its future, so now’s the time to take a strong stance.
‘Oxford knows only too well what the effects of climate change could mean for its own historic city and its buildings. Seven rivers meet in Oxford and colleges already have plans for the risks of flooding resulting from climate change. And the economic argument for divestment is compelling; with stocks in renewables out-performing traditional investments, it’s a no brainer from an economic and an environmental point of view.’
Juliet Davenport, founder of Good Energy and an Oxford alumna
Juliet Davenport OBE studied Physics at Merton College, Oxford, and it was there that her interest in climate change was born.
After completing a Masters degree in Economics and Environmental Economics at Birkbeck, University of London, Juliet was able to bring science and economics together and found Good Energy, the 100% renewable electricity company, as a consumer response to climate change. 15 years later it now has over 150,000 customers and 40MW of renewable generation assets.