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University of Oxford academics demand fossil fuel divestment



Some 67 University of Oxford academics, including the former science adviser to the British government, have called on the institution to divest from fossil fuel companies.

In an open letter to the university’s vice chancellor, the academics urge the world-renowned institution to join the fight to stop climate change by “ridding its £3.8 billion endowment of investments in fossil fuel companies“. 

The letter says that Oxford has a “responsibility to show leadership in tackling one of the greatest challenges we as a society currently face”.

The signatories, including Lord Robert May, former chief scientific adviser to the government, have thrown their support behind the student-led Fossil Free campaign.

In the UK’s biggest public demonstration against fossil fuel investments to date, the Fossil Free campaign took more than 150 Oxford students and residents to the streets on Saturday. The protestors were also calling on local authorities to ditch their fossil fuel holdings.

The growing global fossil fuel divestment movement has urged investors to divest their shares in companies that extract, trade or burn fossil fuels. Principally, this is because of the massive environmental impact that such companies have.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent report concluded that carbon-intensive energy production was the single biggest contributor to global warming.

Energy companies continue to search for new fossil fuels reserves, despite warnings from the IPCC that 80% of the reserves such companies have already claimed must never be used if dangerous climate tipping points are to be avoided.

In an effort to prevent this, campaigners like those in Oxford have pressurised shareholders and worked to stigmatise the industry.

Dr Dominic Roser of the Oxford Martin School Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations, a signatory of the letter, said, “We must change our perception of the fossil fuel industry. They exploit our society’s hunger for this lethal source of energy.”

Alongside the moral case for divestment, campaigners have also sought to make shareholders aware of the financial case for divestment.

If policies are introduced to ensure that the majority of fossil fuel reserves that cannot be burnt remain buried, this would massively devalue the assets of fossil fuel firms – leaving them as ‘stranded assets’. 

Recent analysis by the thinktank Carbon Tracker warned that as much as $1.1 trillion (£650 billion) of investors’ money is currently at risk as a result of this.

“We know about housing bubbles. Now we have a carbon bubble, a bubble of unreal value”, explained Dr Brenda Boardman, another signatory of the letter. 

“It is too risky to own shares in this bubble. It has to burst and will burst if we are sane and want to avoid dangerous climate change.”

This, the academics argue, means the university must also think about its fiduciary duties, at a time when many other institutions, organisations and wealth funds are also considering divestment. 

The University of Oxford is currently consulting on the issue, with a review to be held on July 2.

If it decides to divest, Oxford will join a number of US universities that have already signed up to the cause, including the prestigious Stanford University. Earlier this month, the board of trustees at Stanford pledged to switch investments from coal to “sustainable solutions.

Photo: Adam Ramsay via Twitter

Further reading:

Oxford residents and students to march for fossil fuel divestment

Brighton’s Brighthelm becomes first UK church to divest from fossil fuels

$1.1tn of ‘high cost’ oil investments at risk

Divestment: Stanford to shift investments in coal towards ‘sustainable’ solutions

The investment case for fossil fuel divestment