Cambridge University makes historic break with the fossil fuel industry and commits to full divestment
After a five-year battle over its response to the climate crisis, the University of Cambridge has committed to remove all direct and indirect investments in the fossil fuel industry from its £3.5bn endowment fund by 2030. The Cambridge University Endowment Fund (CUEF) is the largest of any higher education institution in Europe.
Cambridge has also outlined plans to divest from any public equity managers focused on “conventional energy” by December 2020, and to “build up significant investments in renewable energy” by 2025.
The decision marks a major break with the energy sector; Cambridge has held close financial and research ties with BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and other fossil fuel companies for at least 20 years.
Responding to this landmark decision, Cambridge Zero Carbon, the student-led campaign which has led the five year campaign for divestment at the University, commented:
“This is a historic victory for the divestment movement. After decades of close collaboration with the fossil fuel industry, Cambridge University has been forced to concede to divestment demands put forward by student and staff campaigners.”
Zero Carbon added “this sends a resounding signal to BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil: no more will Cambridge University profit from the companies who have decimated frontline communities, bankrolled misleading climate science, lobbied against environmental regulations, while continuing to explore for oil even as the planet burns.”
In March 2019, Zero Carbon coordinated a democratic motion backed by 324 Cambridge academics calling on the University to produce fully-costed strategies for divestment. In response, the University commissioned a report authored by Dr Ellen Quigley, Emily Bugden, and Cambridge Chief Financial Officer Anthony Odgers.
As a result of this divestment report, Cambridge’s Investment Office has come to the decision to remove their investment in fossil fuels across all asset classes by 2030.
In response to this announcement, Robert Macfarlane, author and fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge said “Finally, the voices of those speaking out for climate justice have been listened to and acted on. But as climate fires rage across the American west and Arctic sea-ice extent hits new lows, this must be only the beginning of a wide-scale severing of Cambridge’s ties with the fossil fuel industry, and further public recognition of how the immiseration caused by the climate crisis falls most heavily upon the most vulnerable.”
The divestment report outlines a clear incompatibility between the University’s desire to address the climate crisis and its investment in fossil fuel companies, stating that no oil major “is genuinely compliant with the Paris Agreement goal. All of the majors continue to expend capital to explore for new hydrocarbon reserves, a significant amount of investment which is already incompatible with even a 1.75˚C scenario” (p.16).
The divestment decision marks a momentous break with companies that have long held close ties to Cambridge. In 2000, BP donated £20 million to the University to found the BP Institute and, in April 2018, then-BP CEO Bob Dudley publicly urged the University not to divest, stating “we donate and do lots of research at Cambridge so I hope they come to their senses on this.”
Two months after Dudley’s statement, Cambridge rejected divestment. However, a Guardian investigation later demonstrated conflicts of interest in the decision, exposing that key decision-makers were simultaneously overseeing multi-million pound donations from BP and BHP Billiton.
In November 2019, Cambridge accepted a £6 million donation from Royal Dutch Shell, and a Zero Carbon report published a month earlier found that the BP Institute’s research was worth between $300 million and $3bn per year to oil production companies.
However, in the Vice Chancellor’s Address on the 1st October 2020, live streamed for the start of term, it has been announced that Cambridge University will be divesting and will not accept funding from sources that are incompatible with its sustainability ambitions, signalling a break with its former partners.
Responding to this latest development in the ever-growing divestment movement, Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavillion, argued “More than half of UK universities have now divested from fossil fuels and I’m delighted that Cambridge is the latest to join their ranks. This is thanks to all those students who’ve kept up the pressure on the University. They put to shame the Government which is still using public money to support fossil fuel projects overseas, a policy which must end if we are to have any credibility as hosts of the UN climate summit next year.”
Zero Carbon’s consistent lobbying efforts have been accompanied by five years of rallies and direct actions attended by thousands, including a week-long occupation of the University finance offices in June 2018 by 25 students.
The campaign group has worked in partnership with organisations from the Global South, arguing that fossil fuel companies are responsible for the degradation of the land and lives of communities on the front lines of the climate crisis. The Movement for the Survival for the Ogoni People (MOSOP), an organisation fighting against Royal Dutch Shell’s role in environmental degradation in the Niger Delta, urged Cambridge to divest and MOSOP representatives spoke at the Divestment Conference in November 2019.
Focusing on the global effects of Cambridge’s decision to divest, Bill McKibben, author of the first mass audience book on climate change and founder of 350.org, stated: “With this announcement, the product of hard work over many years by hundreds of devoted campaigners, the University finally puts its money where its brains are, acknowledging the overwhelming threat the fossil fuel industry poses to the planet’s climate.”
McKibben added “one hopes that this bold action will shame Harvard, the University founded by a Cambridge alumnus, into belated action.”
Although this decision is welcomed, Cambridge Zero Carbon commented that “this announcement comes five years too late and we’ll be pushing for the 2030 commitment to be brought forward.”
They added that Cambridge cutting ties with the fossil fuel industry should extend well beyond full divestment: “last year, we exposed the extensive entanglement of the fossil fuel industry within the workings of the University, well beyond their investments. By taking research funding, extending invitations to careers fairs and naming 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.”