Cambridge University Divests From Big Oil Years Too Late

After a five-year student- and faculty-led campaign, Cambridge says it'll cut ties with fossil fuel companies ... by 2030.
October 5, 2020, 1:01pm
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For the last 20 years, Cambridge University—the second oldest university in the English-speaking world—has held close financial and research ties with Big Oil interests like BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and many other fossil fuel giants. That’s all about to change.

Five years ago, students and academics started campaigning to get Cambridge University to remove all investments in fossil fuels from its £3.5 billion endowment fund. At first, there was little movement from the university administrators. 

But things came to a head in March 2019, when members of the student-led divestment campaign, Cambridge Zero Carbon, coordinated a democratic motion backed by 324 Cambridge academics. The motion demanded that the university produce fully-costed strategies for divestment. 

That’s when things started to get real. In response to the motion, the university commissioned a report into divestment options. 

Finally on October 1st, the campaign bore fruit with the Vice Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, announcing full direct and indirect divestment from fossil fuels by 2030, along with a commitment to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2038.  

There can be no doubt that this is a significant victory, representing an escalating sea-change in the way academic institutions are thinking about their role in the climate crisis. The Cambridge University Endowment Fund (CUEF) is the largest of any higher education institution in Europe, and its decision will set a benchmark for other universities.

Action is to begin immediately, with Cambridge planning to divest from any public equity managers focused on “conventional energy” by December 2020, and to “allocate significant capital” to renewable energy by 2025. 

Professor Toope also declared the university’s commitment to no longer accept funding from sources considered incompatible with these sustainability ambitions.

For anyone feeling apathetic about the prospects for securing major institutional change as we hurtle toward climate catastrophe, this announcement should lend some reassurance that carefully-planned strategic engagement combined with sound research, alliance-building, and patient persuasion can have real impacts. 

Institutions with decades of historical relationships of financial dependence on fossil fuels can be moved into far more transformative commitments. If we scaled up this sort of approach across other major sectors over the next decade, the possibility of system change doesn’t look so bleak after all.

But we shouldn’t be sanguine. 

Cambridge University’s 2030 divestment commitment, while a massive and unprecedented step forward worthy of celebration, is still too little, too late, given the evidence of the vast scale of climate risks. If, as the UN climate panel recently warned, a business-as-usual trajectory might mean we breach the 1.5 degrees Celsius safe limit as early as 2030, then this coming decade is crucial. 

To avoid breaching the safe limit, the UN has urged governments to achieve 7.6 percent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions every year for the next decade, and noted that current commitments under the Paris Agreement are on track for a catastrophic 3.2C temperature rise. The British Military of Defense appears to be convinced that such an outcome is inevitable and is making plans accordingly.

In this context, waiting to divest fully by the end of the decade, and to reach net zero in 18 years, is simply not good enough.

In a statement about the divestment decision, a spokesperson for Cambridge Zero Carbon described it as “a historic victory for the divestment movement,” but added: “This announcement comes five years too late and we’ll be pushing for the 2030 commitment to be brought forward. Last year, we exposed the extensive entanglement of the fossil fuel industry within the workings of the University, well beyond their investments. By continuing to take research funding, invite them to careers fairs and name their buildings after these companies, the University is clearly still in the oily clutches of this dirty industry. We will be campaigning to end all ties.”

So even as we punch the air over this victory, we need to go much further in recognizing that Cambridge University merely represents a tiny fraction of the critical transformative changes we need. Not just at Cambridge, but everywhere else. But we can take heart that such transformative change really is within our grasp. It’s up to us to reach for it.