UK universities urged to cut fossil fuel funding

NGO report highlights deep ties between universities and fossil fuels, with Imperial receiving £17.3m from Shell and BP in 2013

Source: Flickr/Gerard Stolk

Source: Flickr/Gerard Stolk

By Sophie Yeo

London’s Imperial College receives more funding from the fossil fuel industry than any other UK university, a study carried out by NGOs has found.

The university, which focuses on scientific research, received £17.3 million from Shell and BP alone in 2013, while 9.1% of the value of their shares was directly invested in fossil fuel companies.

But this is just one example of a huge network of ties maintained between universities and fossil fuel companies, the report suggests.

Oxford University, which has the largest endowment fund of any UK university, maintains deep connections with the fossil fuel industry, much of which is channelled through its Institute for Energy Studies, where over 50% of grants come from oil and gas companies. The study points out that of the 250 papers published by the Institute, only three are on renewables.

It also highlights that Cambridge received what was at the time the largest ever grant from an oil and gas company in 2000, when BP gave a £23.1 million endowment to fund the BP Institute, where staff carried out research on how to improve the flow of oil in pipelines.

In total, the report estimates that universities have altogether invested £5.2 billion in the fossil fuel industry, or an equivalent of £2,083 for every student.

The report was compiled by People & Planet, and Platform, as part of a campaign to try to get universities to divest their funds away from non-renewable sources of energy. The divestment campaign has already taken off in the US, where six colleges and universities have already agreed to divest.


Bill McKibben, who is credited with taking the campaign into the mainstream in the US, 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.”

A recent report from the Smith School at Oxford University claimed that the effectiveness of divestment campaigns was not a result of depriving the companies of finance, but from the stigma that it associated with them.

Ben Caldecott, author of the report, told RTCC last week: “Our research shows that the direct effects of divestment are going to be pretty insignificant. That’s particularly the case if you look at UK universities which have relatively small endowments compared to the US, so they aren’t massive holders of investable capital, so the direct impacts are not going to be that significant.

“However, we find in our work that indirect impacts through the process of stigmatisation can have an impact on the valuation of fossil fuel companies over time.”

While the report calls on universities to immediately freeze investments in the fossil fuel industry in favour of more ethical choices, it also asks that they stop bestowing cultural capital on the executives of the companies, which helps them to maintain a social license to operate.

In the last decade, it says, senior figures from Shell and BP have received 20 awards, while ex-BP chief Tony Hayward, who was forced to resign after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, has been awarded honours from Aston University, the University of Birmingham, and Robert Gordon University.

“Instead of financing the fossil fuel sector, universities can keep money in clean, less risky investments,” it says.

“Instead of greenwashing those industries that exacerbate climate change, universities can exemplify those who are leading the way in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

“Instead of training the industry and researching new ways to extract fossil fuels, they can work to research and train in technologies which will build a clean and healthy future.”

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