UCL Fossil Fuel Divestment debate

UCL organised a debate about fossil fuel divestment, with 7 knowledgeable speakers (all professors), raising argument for and against the suggestion that UCL should divest from fossil fuels and sell its £21million invested in the industry. In the room and on the panel there were more people who supported the motion than those who opposed it. Interestingly, at the end of the discussion more people switched to support divestment. I took notes of the positions and what people mentioned as a way to map the different views that were expressed. So here are my notes, the tl;dr point of each argument and something about my view at the end of this longish post.

Anthony Costello opened the debate and discuss that research from UCL provided evidence to justify the Guardian ‘keep it in the ground‘ campaign. The aim of the debate is to explore different views and see what the general views of the people who attended it.

Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet opened with some comments officially Chaired the debate – there is a movement around divestment from fossil fuel that is very rapidly growing across society and different places. Universities are special in their role in society – they are creator of knowledge about public policy issues, but they are also a moral space within society, where position can be taken. Some of UK universities decided to divest – Glasgow, SOAS. Other university didn’t decide – e.g. Oxford. It is appropriate to ask what UCL should do, it is leading on considering the impacts of climate change on society at large – e.g. risk to health?

Chris Rapley, opened with nothing that we are the first humans to breath at 400ppm of CO in the atmosphere as a basic composition  – it is above the levels for the last 800,000 years. 40% rise is the same increment between ice age and interglacial age. The change is taking place 100 times faster than anything natural. The conclusion is that it is unwise to increase above 2C from pre-industrial levels, and we have very little left to burn. 80% of coal and 50% of oil are unburnable – we don’t have a solution for carbon capture and storage yet. The first reason to divest is that it’s prudent – it’s the energy of the past, and renewable are the future. The valuations are a bubble so it is best to put the money elsewhere. second point, we need to be put on a trajectory away from fossil fuel by this December – and lot of issues play out in Paris will not be ratified until 2020. We need to connect the trajectory that we are currently on and the future one, so we do it properly. The CEOs of BP and Shell suggested business as usual, and the recent budget gave 1.2 billion to North Sea oil, so the government is not following its own statement. UCL as radical thinker need to do a gesture in the right direction. We are all part of a web of carbon intensive world, and we need to manage the transition.

My TL;DR Rapley: Science is showing the need combined with need to change trajectory 

Jane Holder argued for divestment from the point of view of a teacher of environmental law. The meaning for teaching and learning – the movement that has gone on for the past 20 and more years to increase environmental education at university level. Helping students to deal with contested knowledge, uncertainty and environmental issues. UCL has done a lot of work over the years – changes to the estate and the curriculum, from this perspective, the UCL campaign make a connection between the estate, curriculum and its finance. There is linkages between environmental education and the learning and teaching of UCL. Significance of informal curriculum – the intangible way in which institution instil values in students – there is publicness of university building and the way it treat staff. Secondly, there are broader changes in university – in terms of education, students explained that since tuition fees, the student is viewed as a consumer, and not citizens of the university community. The divestment campaign allow students to act as citizens and not consumer. University is a site for environmental activity and the roles should be combined.

My TL;DR Holder: teaching and learning imperatives and finance is part of it. 

Anthony Finkelstein argued, this is not question of expertise, starting point that accepting the need to change – but expect to see change in energy sources happening with technological advances. The speed and extent of change is complex feedback systems. Generally, he adopts a precautionary view. However, fossil fuel will be part of our future because of their properties – we need to deal with consumption and not production. Consumption is within a political context and the condemnation of fossil fuel is about political failure. UCL should invest according to regulatory aspects. Ownership of asset can be used to exert influence, the concern is about research and UCL strategy – it’s hypocritical to use money from fossil fuel companies for research, but not to invest in them – it sends the wrong message. A lot of research in engineering is supported by fossil fuel companies – also raise the issue of academic freedom. It is not right to ask or to question ethics of people you disagree with. (see the full argument on Anthony’s blog)

My TL;DR Finkelstein: deal with consumption and not production, we are using a lot of funding from fossil fuel companies and there is a risk to academic freedom. 

Hugh Montgomery – fossil fuel helped humanity, but it need to stop. Energy gain to the planet is equivalent to 5 Hiroshima bombs a second. 7% will stay 100,000 years. Health impacts will be in all sort of directions – and these concern also among military bodies, or the WHO. Not only from ‘extreme left wing’ organisations. Even to reach 2C we have 27 years or even more like 19 years – if we are to act, we have to keep 2/3 of fossil fuel in the ground. There is over-exposure to stranded assets. Why divestment? it’s not ‘rabid anti-capitalist agenda’ – we should change market forces. The aim of the divestment is to force fossil fuel companies to go through transformative change. UCL should do what is right, not only the amount of money, but as a statement. The stigmatisation will be significant to fossil fuel companies.

My TL;DR Montgomery: it’s not only left wing politics, even if you are fairly conservative in outlook, this make sense. 

Jane Rendell – stated that she concerned about the environment and stood down from the Bartlett research vice-dean position because of BHP Billiton funding. Leading on ethics and the built environment in the Bartlett. From her view, investment in fossil fuel is not compatible with UCL research strategy of dealing with judicious application of knowledge to improve humanity. The investment is incompatible with its own ethical guidelines and its environmental strategy. It’s also incompatible with UCL research itself about the need to leave fossil fuel in the ground. The most profound change will come from breaking down practices of finance – it’s not acceptable for fund manager to hide behind claims to ignore their responsibility to everyone else. The only argument is for shareholder engagement, and there is no evidence for it – as well as Porritt declared recently about the uselessness of engagement.

My TL;DR Rendell: incompatibility with UCL policies, and there is no point in engagement. 

Alan Penn – Universities should concentrate in their place in society – relatively new institutions and important in generation of knowledge and passing it to future generation. The ability to critically question the world. We are all invested in this companies – we benefiting from tax from North Sea oil, pension funds. Arguing that money is just transactional property and therefore doesn’t hold value. Arguing that people should invest and force companies to change through engagement.

My TL;DR Penn: don’t mix money with values, and if you want change, buy controlling stake in shares.

After the discussion (with Anthony Finkelstein having to defend his position more than anyone else), there was more support for divestment, although most of the room started from that point of view.

Finally, my view – I’ve started my university studies in October 1991, and as I was getting interested in environment and society issues in my second year of combined Computer Science and Geography degree, the Earth Summit in Rio (June 1992) was all the rage. The people who taught me have been in the summit – that also explains how I got interested in Principle 10 of the Rio declaration which is central to my work. This biographical note is to point that Earth Summit was also the starting point for the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which opens with

The Parties to this Convention,
Acknowledging that change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind,
Concerned that human activities have been substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, that these increases enhance the natural greenhouse effect, and that this will result on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere and may adversely affect natural ecosystems and humankind …

So for the past 23 years, I’ve been watching from the sidelines how the decision makers are just not getting to the heart of the matter, nor acting although they are told about the urgency. The science was clear then. If the actions of government and industries started in 1992 we could have all been well on the route for sustainability (at least in energy consumption). It was absolutely clear that the necessary technologies are already around. I therefore find the argument of shareholders engagement as unrealistic at this stage, nor do I see the link between investment, where you don’t have control over the actions of the company, and careful decision on which research project to carry out in collaboration and under which conditions. This why I have supported the call to UCL to divest.


I still need to find the time to write the academic paper to follow my blog post about the role of my research area in fossil fuel exploration

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