Fossil fuel divestment placard

It’s not every day that such an old institution as the University of Oxford takes an about turn on a policy that it has resisted for almost twenty years. But the threat of climate change has rung loud and clear through even the vaulted halls of Oxford, and the outcome from last week is a unique commitment to divestment from the fossil fuel industry.

After pressure from students, staff and the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign, Oxford University’s governing body has, without objection, passed a motion requiring the university’s £3.4 billion endowment to be brought in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, as per the Oxford Martin Principles for Climate-Conscious Investment. As well as ensuring the university will hold no direct investments in fossil fuel companies, any indirect investment portfolios Oxford has shares in must now exclude companies without a credible hard net-zero by 2050 plan. This means that, barring the development of carbon capture and storage technologies far more effective and scaled than those available today, fossil fuel companies may not be included in Oxford’s list of acceptable investments unless they radically change their business plan and capital expenditure. Subject to an annual review, engagement will take place to allow companies lacking an acceptable plan to develop one. A member of staff, occupying a role created by the motion, will oversee the process and ensure evidence of change to neutralize climate impacts across investments.

One benefit resulting from the unconventional nature of the motion was highlighted by Myles Allen, lead IPCC author and head of Oxford University’s Climate Dynamics Group, when he pointed out that Oxford had taken on the responsibility of working “with companies to assess their net-zero strategies”, allowing the university to influence these companies into adopting a net-zero plan and so potentially resulting in a wider impact than a pure divestment motion would be likely to do.

Brigitte Wear, Oxford student and environment and ethics officer at Somerville College, said:

With this pledge, we are showing solidarity with the people and species with whom we share our planet, many of which are harmed to a much greater extent than we are by our carbon footprint.

Oxford University has previously made a partial divestment commitment covering only coal and tar sands investments but, with global temperatures set to rise by 3.2℃ unless the current emissions trajectory is changed, students and staff felt that a much stronger commitment was needed. This change in the University’s financial approach comes in the same week that both the American University and Harvard have pledged to decrease the emissions associated with their investments. The crucial difference between Oxford’s commitment and Harvard’s, however, comes from the fact that Harvard’s ability to satisfy its commitment rests on carbon offsetting, widely considered a non-solution, whilst Oxford’s does not.

Over the past few years, there has been a growing trend towards fossil fuel divestment as the public becomes increasingly aware of the threat climate change poses. With the value of fossil fuels that must remain unburnt for global warming to be kept to 2℃ estimated at $100 trillion (before Covid-19 caused a sharp fall in oil prices), divestment is now popular in the higher education sector, with universities such as Edinburgh, Cardiff and Nottingham in the UK, and Seattle, Salem State and California in the US among others having previously committed to excluding fossil fuel investments from their investment portfolios.

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