Universities are increasingly recognising that they have a responsibility to set the climate agenda – but investments and banking decisions lag behind.
The world’s premier climate carnival, COP26, passed through Glasgow last month. After 25 previous instalments, and 25 total failures to halt runaway climate change, few were under any illusions about what the likely outcome would be. Nonetheless, the eyes of the world turned to the UK and to Glasgow, hoping against hope for meaningful climate action to be agreed upon.
The outcome reflected nothing of the sort. Representatives came from around the world to make their case, including communities on the front-line of climate impacts. But when they arrived, they found that they were outnumbered by representatives from the fossil fuel industry, who had the largest delegation of all, larger than any single country.
Given this, it was guaranteed from the start that the final agreement would make no meaningful commitment to phase out fossil fuels. And indeed it didn’t. World leaders failed the global community once again, so it’s time for civil society leaders to accept their responsibility to take the reins, set the agenda, and commit to meaningful climate action themselves.
Universities have a substantial role to play in this respect. Our universities are some of our most valued public institutions. They are respected centres of research and teaching, including on climate science, and have significant cultural influence. They should be setting the climate agenda where governments are failing.
How are universities doing?
However, with every university claiming to be sustainable, it’s not always easy to assess whether they are really taking the action required. It’s vital that students set the agenda, and determine what sustainability best practice should look like in their institutions.
That’s what the newly released 2021 People & Planet University League does – ranks universities against robust sustainability and ethics criteria. It assesses, in other words, whether they are actually taking action that lives up to their promises to be climate leaders.
And the results show that universities are very slowly progressing in that direction in some areas of their work.
Of the 154 universities ranked in the league, 92 have now made a public commitment to screen out all fossil fuel companies from their investment portfolios. UK universities can legitimately claim to be leading the pack on this front, with the UK higher education sector making up an incredible 42% of global educational institution divestment commitments. The remaining UK universities without such commitments are scrambling to catch up.
Even more encouragingly, universities are now much better at actually enshrining their divestment commitments in policy. Back in 2019, only a third of universities who had publicly committed to divest had actually implemented the requisite policy. Now, that number stands at 82%. The sector has been excellent at developing ethical investment policies, usually in collaboration with students who have been pushing this issue forward.
Investments are far from the only criteria against which universities are judged in the People & Planet University League. But they have become one of the most salient to student campaigners over the last few years because of the very simple maxim: “if it’s wrong to wreck the planet, then it’s wrong to profit from the wreckage.” It’s bad enough that universities are fuelling the climate crisis, but it is truly unconscionable that many continue to actively profit from and fund their activities most harmful to it: those carried out by the fossil fuel industry.
The moral case is crystal clear. We know that the fossil fuel industry is more responsible than any other for the climate crisis. Despite knowing that there can be no new oil and gas projects if we are to have a chance of keeping global warming below 1.5C, they continue to extract and push forward with new ones. Their continued profitability and success will cost us the earth; universities should instead be betting on a liveable future for all.
Given that it is an important issue to students, and that it makes sense both ethically and financially, it’s quite shocking that 40% of the university sector still invests in the fossil fuel industry. Fossil fuel divestment is a common-sense decision for universities, and those who haven’t yet made a commitment are getting rapidly left behind.
Time for a change
Other criteria that make up the final rankings of the People & Planet University League include education, energy sources, workers’ rights, and water reduction. Manchester Metropolitan University came out top, with the University of Durham putting in a strong performance as most improved.
However, more than half of UK universities are still not yet on track to meet the sector-wide emissions reductions target set by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The deadline is next year, and unless something drastic changes, this will be a moment of deep shame for the sector. Furthermore, fewer than one in twenty universities have an ethical banking policy, despite long running student demands for this to be implemented.
Indeed, if universities have made a commitment to exclude fossil fuel companies from their investments, they should also be working to exclude banks who fund the industry and its fossil fuel extraction projects too.
It is time for universities to meaningfully break all links with the fossil fuel industry, and take their climate responsibilities seriously. These links are deep and varied: for example, there is not a single UK university that bars the oil, gas, or mining industry from accessing recruitment services at present – though Fossil Free Careers, the student campaign launched this year, may see this change soon.
The 2021 People & Planet University League shows that a step change in university policy is desperately needed. We look forward to witnessing that change in 2022.