Protesting students lay down on the steps of the university’s stately Old College yesterday and angrily confronted the senior vice principal, Professor Charlie Jeffery, after he announced a much more cautious approach to disinvestment than had been expected.
The university rejected the option of withdrawing investments from all fossil fuel companies partly because of its involvement in research and teaching on the oil, gas and coal industries. “A broad-brush decision to divest would likely be seen as a sweeping and undue limitation to academic freedom,” concluded a university review.
“This option would also appear to increase the risk to capital and overall risks to the investment portfolio as well as raising serious concerns around the impact on the university’s existing investment approach.”
Instead, Edinburgh University opted for a policy of “engagement” with fossil fuel companies using “investment leverage” to persuade them to change their behaviour and cut climate pollution. Companies will be required to report on their emissions and compared to others in their sectors.
The university will only pull investments from high-polluting coal and tar sands companies if they fail to invest in low-carbon technologies and there are “realistic” alternative sources of energy. Though there were alternatives in the developed world, it pointed out, there were none in much of the developing world.
Edinburgh has one of the largest university investment funds in the UK, estimated at £291 million. According to Jeffery yesterday, 8-9 per cent is currently invested in fossil fuels, suggesting £23m-26m, though analysis of freedom of information responses to students puts the figure at £14.5m.
The university’s decision, which will be reviewed in three years, was widely condemned by students, environmental groups and politicians. “The fact our university has chosen to continue funding environmental degradation and human suffering shows that they care far more about profit than our futures,” said Kirsty Haigh, a campaigner with the student group, People and Planet.
She accused some of the university’s engineering staff of being “in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry” and “scaremongering”. She added: “Despite the university's public consultation showing overwhelming support for fossil fuel divestment, it has put money before climate science.”
Ric Lander, finance campaigner with Friends of the Earth Scotland, pointed out that other universities like Glasgow, religious groups and government bodies worldwide had decided to make their investments fossil-free. “Edinburgh University has missed a clear opportunity to take a moral lead on tackling climate change and stand up for environmental justice,” he said.
He criticised the university for failing to listen to the arguments and adopting an “almost business-as-usual approach”. More than 80 per cent of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change killing up to 250,000 people a year, he argued.
Lang Banks, the director of environmental group, WWF Scotland, described Edinburgh’s decision as “disappointing”. He said: “The fight to decarbonise investments here and around the world will continue."
The Green MSP for Lothian, Alison Johnstone, warned that continuing to invest in overvalued fossil fuels risked another economic crash. “It's frustrating to see Edinburgh clinging on, hoping to change the behaviour of the big businesses they're supporting,” she said.
Professor Jeffery, however, defended the university’s decision, stressing that combating fossil fuel pollution was “not a black and white issue”. He said: “This may not conform to expectation, but we think it right.”
He stressed that many developing countries were still dependent on fossil fuels for heating, clean water and refrigeration. “An abrupt shift away from fossil fuel use would impact on the well-being of some of the world’s poorest communities,” he said.
“The decision outlines our commitment to use the leverage of our investments to bring about change that reduces carbon emissions in the fossil fuels and other sectors, and to press further with our world-leading research activities that actively contribute to the solution of problems arising from fossil fuel emissions and the identification of alternative technologies.”