Edinburgh students occupied the finance department for 10 days in May. Photo: Ric Lander


Nearly a month ago, on Wednesday 27 May, Edinburgh University released a statement signalling its intention to divest from three of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies in the next six months due to their exploitation of coal and tar sands. It was joyous news but at first, we couldn’t quite believe it.

The People & Planet delegates who went to meet with the university that morning returned with expressions of confused optimism, delivering the news to the rest of us in a hesitating tone: ‘We think we might have won…?’

A couple of hours later this statement was released: ‘The University is writing to three of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers to inform them that it intends to fully divest from their activities within the next six months.’

The media rapidly picked up the story, reporting the university’s new commitment to divest from coal and tar sands. We breathed an explosive sigh of relief – it would be hard for the university to make a U-turn now without facing a public backlash.

The headlines credited campaigners for pushing the university to its decision, and rightly so. The whole campaign has been a testament to the value of activism. It has inspired a huge range of people – staff, students and the general public – and managed to reach so many who wouldn’t normally describe themselves as ‘activists’. The comprehensive news coverage, the avalanche of support from individuals and organisations across the world, and most significantly, the success of forcing the university to listen, all attest to protest being both efficacious and worthwhile.

Something has clearly been achieved but precisely how significant the achievements are remains to be seen. The university’s commitments are full of disconcerting shortcomings. For starters, this is obviously not complete divestment, not even close. No promises have been made about other fossil fuels such as oil and gas, but only about the most harmful ones, that is, coal and tar sands.

Even the decision to divest from coal and tar sands is worryingly hazy. Edinburgh has decided to give fossil fuel companies four weeks to respond to its’ letter, a face-saving measure included in deference to the university’s hollow commitment to engaging with fossil fuel companies.

When we directly pressed the university on whether companies could actually respond to the letter in a way that would stop divestment, the university refused to specify. This means, that the university could accept any meagre token gesture from companies to boost their environmental credentials as sufficient action to stop divestment from happening. Such a concession would, of course, be a huge betrayal of the university’s commitments to divest and would certainly lead to a public backlash. It would, however, also set the whole campaign back to square one.

Call us unforgiving cynics, but we don’t think Edinburgh University’s senior management have been struck by an environmental road-to-Damascus change of heart (no energy-saving-lightbulb moment, as it were). Important and welcome as their promise is, it will remain a hollow gesture if not promptly followed by meaningful steps towards divestment. It will take an awful lot more for Edinburgh to prove that it takes its commitment to divest seriously.

People & Planet will continue to press the university until full divestment happens. The demands of the ethical investment campaign remain as they were when it was launched three years ago: that Edinburgh University divests completely and permanently from all fossil fuels and arms companies.

Over the past two weeks we’ve been discussing how best to pursue these aims. The university’s working group on arms investments will be meeting over the summer and People & Planet will be calling for a strong stance to be taken against arms investments. Crucially, we will also be holding the university to account on its coal and tar sands promise, monitoring progress to ensure it meets its divestment commitment.

It’s a wonderful relief to see Edinburgh backtracking and taking some very welcome steps towards divestment; but there’s a long way to go and we won’t be resting on our laurels. Ardent congratulations and thanks to everyone who has been involved and given People & Planet such incredible support. We hope to see you soon as the campaign continues.

This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on 16 June on the Edinburgh University People & Planet blog. Republished with permission.