20 october 2013

Revealed: Extensive university ties to fossil fuel industry

20 Oct 2013, People and Planet

A new report by People & Planet, Platform and has exposed the extent to which the fossil fuel industry is financially interconnected with UK universities.

The report, Knowledge and Power – Fossil Fuel Universities, reveals that UK universities have an estimated £5.2 billion invested in the fossil fuel industry, equivalent to £2,083 for every student in the UK. Using data obtained through Freedom of Information requests and crowd-sourced from students and staff at universities across the UK, it also reveals the weaknesses of our university’s current ethical investment policies.

Miriam Dobson, a spokesperson for People & Planet at Edinburgh University which invests around 16% of its £230m endowment in fossil fuel companies, said:

“Our universities are public institutions and as such have responsibilities to the wider community as well as the planet - investing in fossil fuel companies, which harm communities and destroy the climate, is simply not OK.”

And the ties go much deeper than purely financial support. The report accuses universities of ‘greenwashing’ a sector whose business model relies on burning 5 times more carbon than is safe to avoid a climate crisis. For example, senior executives from BP and Shell have received 20 awards and honorary degrees from UK universities in the last decade alone, providing them with valuable legitimacy and a ‘social license to operate’.

Kevin Smith from oil and gas watchdog Platform said:

“UK universities have become the victims of corporate capture at the hands of the fossil fuel sector. We are allowing vital public infrastructure to be used to subsidise and expand a dangerous, out-dated energy model that only benefits the profits of oil and gas companies.”

The report is the most comprehensive assessment to date of UK universities ties to the fossil fuel industry, and paints a damning picture of the industry’s influence over research agendas. For example, of the 258 papers published by the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies, only three focussed on renewables, whilst the Institute received more than half of its grants from oil and gas companies. In 2013 Imperial College London has more research funding from fossil fuel companies than any other UK institution, receiving £17.3 million from Shell and BP alone.

The report coincides with the launch of People & Planet’s Fossil Free UK divestment campaign. In collaboration with co-founder and acclaimed author Bill McKibben, students will embark on a UK tour to kickstart the divestment movement in a fortnight.

Both the report and UK tour come at a time when the Fossil Free campaign to get higher education institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies is reaching an unprecedented degree of attention on both sides of the Atlantic. A study released earlier this month by the Smith School at Oxford University concluded that fossil fuel divestment campaigning posed “the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies.”

20 student groups in the UK have so far launched campaigns for their universities to divest from fossil fuels, including at the 3 universities with the largest endowments and investments in fossil fuels: Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh.

Bill McKibben, who will headline all 3 stops on the Fossil Free UK Tour, said:

“Severing our ties with the companies digging up the carbon won’t bankrupt them – but it will start to politically bankrupt them, and make their job of dominating the planet’s politics that much harder. Universities have a central role to play in this regard since they are one of the few places in our civilization where reason still stands a good chance of prevailing over power. Students establishing some power of their own as they organize serves as a testament to that.”

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