Last year, Glasgow University became the first university in Europe to commit to fossil fuel divestment. Since then SOAS and Bedford have followed suit. Who, one wondered, would be next? The obvious answer was Edinburgh. Edinburgh has long prided itself on its ethical credentials. It was the first university in Europe to sign up to the UN Principles of Responsible Investment. In 2014, it set up the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, which swiftly launched a consultation on investment policy. The Just World Institute contributed by issuing a response document and collaborating in a packed out public debate. Finally, in the autumn, the matter moved to another level: the university set up a committee to formally consider the future of its £290 million endowment. Divestment seemed like a real possibility.
But the university has chosen not to divest. It will keep its shares and seek to engage with fossil fuel corporations instead. Student campaigners are not impressed. They have occupied a university building, attracting significant media attention.
The argument for divestment is straightforward. We are on the verge of runaway climate change with disastrous consequences for billions of people across the world, especially the poor. The fossil fuel industry has refused to switch to renewables and continues to lobby government against a sustainable solution. Given this context, the university would seem to have a negative duty not to profit from actions that cause misery to others and a positive duty to take reasonable measures to signal its desire for change.
So why did the university choose not to divest? It is hard to say for sure. Perhaps there are some powerful anti-divestment arguments and these proved decisive when university’s committee considered the issue. Nevertheless, some of the arguments that have been given (in the university’s press release and elsewhere) are surprisingly weak. Here are five:
- The world is currently dependent on fossil fuels. An abrupt shift away from their use would impact on the well being of some of the world’s poorest communities.
This would be a good argument if the divestment campaign were seeking to stop all fossil fuel use immediately. But it isn’t. Instead, it seeks to pressure government and industry to begin a measured transition to clean energy. The current course set is towards environmental catastrophe. Inertia is strong; political will weak. There is then no danger that the divestment campaign will prove too successful. But if this really were a concern, there is a solution the university could have adopted: to divest gradually, over many years. This is precisely what Glasgow committed to do.
- There is currently no alternative to fossil fuel use. The University should only divest in cases where alternatives are available.
This argument ignores two crucial facts: there are alternatives that are currently not being sufficiently exploited and additional alternatives will only be developed if government and industry are pressured into developing them. This is the conclusion the experts in the IPCC have reached: the world can go fossil fuel free but it requires action now. We should not simply wait for alternatives; we should support their realisation. By divesting from fossil fuels – and investing in renewables – the university can signal its demand for change.
- The university is dependent on fossil fuels for energy and cannot avoid investing in fossil fuels indirectly. Since the university cannot be fossil fuel free, there is no reason to divest.
This argument is essentially a version of the all or nothing fallacy: since one cannot do everything, one might as well do nothing. Even the university must recognise the poverty of this argument, since it has promised to do something: seek engagement. The relevant choice then is not between doing everything or doing nothing, but between the minimal steps that the university has promised and something more substantive.
- Carbon capture technology promises to make fossil fuels a clean source of energy, so there is no need to divest.
Carbon capture is in its infancy. It might prove a significant part of the solution to climate change but it might not. A dream of a future in which fossil fuels are safe to burn should not distract us from the dangerous situation we currently face. Nor is divestment incompatible with the development of carbon capture. On the contrary, divestment puts corporations on the spot: “clean up your act or you’ll be boycotted”. If, one day, the link between fossil fuels and emissions is broken, the university could reinvest, just as the international community reinvested in South Africa once Apartheid was dismantled.
- The university can do more good through engagement than divestment.
This argument would be strong if it were backed up by evidence. But the university offers none. In fact, there is little to be found. At least 150 climate change proposals have been filed at fossil fuel companies in the last 23 years. None have been successful. The oil giant BP, once lauded by some investors for its promise to go “Beyond Petroleum”, has since dumped its projects on renewables as a distraction from fossil fuels. The conclusion experts have reached is that engagement cannot work when the task is to change the core business model of a corporation. The core business model of fossil fuel corporations is to search out and dig up the remaining oil, coal and gas. If the worst effects of climate change are to be averted, most of these fuels must stay in the ground.