University commitments on fossil fuel divestment are meaningless

Emma de Saram argues that universities must be bolder in refusing to work with fossil fuel companies, advocating for genuine just transitions through shared decision-making processes

Emma de Saram is President at Exeter Students' Guild

We have now officially experienced the first full year of global warming surpassing 1.5°C.

In 2015, world leaders promised to limit global temperature rise to well below 2C as a crucial step in delaying catastrophic climate consequences, with efforts to cap it at 1.5C.

Despite the legally binding Paris Agreement, the UK government’s actions have proved to be nothing but a smoke and mirrors exercise in diplomacy – evidenced by their actions to continue subsidising fossil fuels and granting licenses for new oil and gas projects.

A landmark 2018 UN report stated that intense heatwaves, rising sea levels, and ecosystem loss were much higher at 2C of warming than at 1.5C, consequences driven by more than a century of burning fossil fuels and unequal and unsustainable energy and land use.

And while proclaiming to be ahead of the government in their climate action, UK Universities are complicit in delaying action – operating as cogs in the fossil fuel machine.

Keeping it all going

Universities form part of the web of institutions allowing the continued operation of the fossil fuel industry. A significant majority of UK universities are upholding a business-as-usual system by providing the social licenses for fossil fuel companies to continue wrecking our life support systems in exchange for a tiny fraction of their multi-billion profits, through research partnerships, direct influence from oil companies and scholarships.

In their current form, the corporate, privatised university is ill-suited to being part of climate solution, as hierarchy and profit have become their guiding motives.

Time and again, university commitments to fossil fuel divestment have proved to be meaningless. Climate academics at the University of Bristol have drawn attention to the £3 million taken from oil, gas and mining companies including from BP, Shell, Total, Equinor, Chevron and Petrobras. Significant funding came from the Anglo-Australian mining company BHP, that is being sued over its role in Brazil’s worst environmental disaster.

The University of Oxford has come under criticism since its £6bn endowment fund increased its investment in fossil fuels – shortly following its landmark commitment to divestment.

Over at the Office for Students, the regulator of higher education in England and Wales, the sinister shadows cast by the fossil fuel industry are potentially infiltrating this corner of university governance. OfS chair Lord Wharton is a consultant for OES Oilfield Services, an oilfield inspection company, and he was a former advisor to a pressure group with links to the Koch fossil fuel empire.

Cambridge University’s solution to criticisms of working with BP, was just to rename the building where they’re working.

And while corporate universities prioritise leaderboards, the one deserving closer scrutiny is from this DeSmog investigation. It reveals that universities have accepted tens of millions in fossil fuel funding since 2022; many of which have been accepted by institutions that have pledged to divest from oil and gas companies. Over £40.4 million has been pledged to 44 UK universities by 32 oil, coal and gas companies in the form of research agreements, tuition fees, scholarships, grants, and consulting fees. The largest contributors were Shell, Petronas, and British Petroleum (BP). This is not to mention how universities uphold the military industrial complex through its partnerships with companies producing weapons.

The hot parade

Topping the leaderboard is the University of Exeter, my university, with its £14.7 million, five-year deal with Shell – continuing its 15-year relationship with the oil giant. While the project is part of a “wider Shell-led research programme focused on sequestration”, this is a drop in the ocean. A report by Global Witness shows that Shell’s planned spending on fossil fuels for 2022 – 2030 is 46 billion dollars and the company’s planned emissions between 2018 and 2030 are estimated to account for nearly 1.6 percent of the global carbon budget.

Shell has no intention of phasing out fossil fuels at the pace we need to avert further climate destruction, and Exeter’s academics and students continue to challenge the deal.

As well as the climate chaos caused by fossil fuel companies, the likes of Shell and BP are responsible for grave human rights abuses. Shell has failed to reckon with its colonial past and severe human rights violations; and Shell continues to battle against Nigerian communities in the courts for the destructive impacts of their oil spills.

We can’t address the climate crisis without addressing the root causes; when an institution accepts funding from these industries, it legitimises their continual operation and accepts their violent colonial history. The International Panel on Climate Change’s sixth report on the impact of global warming asserts that colonialism has exacerbated the effects of climate change, with historic and ongoing forms of colonialism increasing the vulnerability of specific people and places to the effects of climate change.

Protests and direct action have become the only feasible form of opposition for students who don’t have access to decision making spaces. Increased policing of student protestors is another weapon utilised by universities; once a sanctuary for political expression, our higher education institutions will threaten anyone who challenges business as usual. In the current climate, it is no wonder that students resort to direct action on their campuses,and that younger generations are increasingly worried and angry about the future due to inaction on climate change.

No more markets

To address universities’ hypocrisy in accepting fossil fuel funding while claiming climate leadership, a crucial reassessment of their decision-making structures and their priorities is essential. As students, staff and academics, we must advocate for processes based on collective decision making, away from an elite minority making purely market-based decisions.

Faculty for a Future is taking on this challenge by collaborating with universities to organise people’s assemblies, a grassroots form of deliberative democracy that provides a structured platform for inclusive decision-making and acknowledging every voice. The UK could also learn from the University of Amsterdam in their transparent and cooperative approach to partnerships with fossil fuel companies (a policy that followed student activism).

As every fraction of warming poses escalating hazards, countries with the most historic responsibility should be contributing the most to mitigating global heating – as the UN Secretary-General states, the fossil fuel industry and its enablers have a special responsibility.

The climate crisis is a symptom of a system of extractivism that values economic growth over the survival of ecosystems and wellbeing of all living species. The corporate takeover of UK universities makes them fundamentally unable to address the root causes of climate chaos in their current form. In a time of intersecting global crises, universities must be bolder in refusing to work with fossil fuel companies, and advocate for genuine just transitions through shared decision-making processes.

8 responses to “University commitments on fossil fuel divestment are meaningless

  1. Some really good points here.

    Maybe there is a market solution too though. Are you aware if any of these meaningless commitments have been used as a promise made to one or more other parties to make them agree to contracts?

  2. Until there is a viable less dirty means of transport available, EV’s lifetime emissions and environmental effects are as bad if not worse than petroleum fuelled vehicles, and cleaner fuels for cooking than paraffin and LPG for the third world Universities have a role as share holders to hold these companies to account. Oh and don’t forget our World relies on chemicals produced from oil, from plastics to pharmaceuticals and more.

    1. This is just plain wrong, as a little research will quickly show: EVs are less polluting than petrol fuelled vehicles, even if using non-renewable electricity! Of course, travelling less, and using public transport, is even better …

  3. Fossil fuel companies are heavily investing in alternatives, so it’s not reasonable to equate such companies as “bad” when there aren’t many others able to progress in this way. So divestment may have the undesirable impact of restricting progress

    1. Most large Oil & Gas companies are investing negligible amounts in renewables, as they see more money to be made in O&G. It is illogical to rely on the public-spirited-ness of these companies when there single purpose is to make money: we (governments) need to tax O&G to the point it is not a source of profit, & invest the tax raised in renewables / efficiency (eg insulation). Unfortunately (but predictably) O&G use some of their huge profits to manipulate governments & public to avoid this – ie O&G are actively & deliberately working to prevent / slow down the transition away from carbon fuels.

      1. And these profits and dividends fund our pensions, as well as tax receipts benefitting us all. Who else has the expertise and resources to get us to where we all want to be?

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