Fossil fuel divestment protest at UEA

The proportion of UK universities that have cut their ties with the fossil fuel industry has reached 50%. 78 public universities have now committed to divest from fossil fuel companies.

That means universities have pulled their money out of the industry, ending their existing investments – or in the case of universities that don’t currently hold investments, committed to never invest in them in the future.

Universities have been shedding their investments at a rapid rate. When student activist network People & Planet launched the UK wing of the Fossil Free campaign in universities in 2012, no higher education institutions had committed to divesting from the fossil fuel industry. But since the University of Glasgow became the first to divest in 2014, dozens have followed suit.

The Fossil Free campaign aims to use the investment portfolios of reputable public institutions – like universities – to stigmatise the fossil fuel industry which campaigners say profits from the carbon-intensive activities driving climate breakdown.

“The right side of history”

Students and campaigners have welcomed the news that 50% of UK universities have now gone Fossil Free.

Chris Saltmarsh, Co-Director: Climate Change Campaigns at People & Planet, said that universities divesting from fossil fuels are on the “right side of history”:

Wildfires are wreaking destruction across Australia, the Amazon and beyond while fossil fuel companies profit from the extraction to blame for this devastation. Excluding this industry from our universities is now a mainstream and majority position. Universities not yet divested can now choose to stand with their students on the right side of history or be forever known as complicit in the crimes of climate breakdown.

Camilla Zerr, Chair of Sheffield People & Planet during the group’s successful divestment campaign said:

Being part of Sheffield University’s divestment campaign was by far the most exciting, character-building and empowering experience I had as a student. It shaped my world-view and career choices. Since then, councils, the UK Parliament, international investment funds, and more have also made fossil-free commitments: it’s amazing to be involved in this powerful movement as it continues to grow.

And Thomas Hazell, co-chair of the Young Greens of England and Wales described the news as “fantastic”:

It’s fantastic to see that in just seven short years student pressure has forced 50% of all UK universities to cut their ties with the fossil fuel industry. Time and time again we’ve seen that the fossil fuel industry has no regard for people or the planet, and is accelerating us closer and closer to climate collapse.

The remaining half of universities must now follow suit. Just as it’s unacceptable to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to fund and profit from that wreckage.

According to People & Planet, £12.4bn of endowments across the higher education sector have been divested. The largest contributions to this come from the University of Edinburgh, along with the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Oxford and Cambridge have ended their investments in coal and tar sands, but not all fossil fuel companies. Both universities are subject to high-profile student campaigns calling on the universities to end their investments in all fossil fuels.

The news comes off the back of a decade of climate struggle. In the UK, the 2010s saw the rise of mass student climate activism, as well as the ever-growing movement to halt fracking. Internationally, local resistance to fossil fuel extraction has ramped up, not least in Columbia and North America. And the decade closed with the international school strike movement taking the world by storm, and the concept of a Green New Deal entering mainstream politics.