Oxford University delays fossil fuel divestment decision

Campaigners disappointed as University Council puts off decision on future of £3.8bn endowment until May

Dreaming spires: Oxford University students are contemplating a future free of fossil fuels (Pic: flickr/Visit Britain)

Dreaming spires: Oxford University students are contemplating a future free of fossil fuels (Pic: flickr/Visit Britain)

By Megan Darby

Oxford University has deferred a decision on whether to divest its £3.8 billion endowment from fossil fuels, in response to a student-led campaign.

After a discussion on Monday morning, the University Council said the campaigners had raised “an important and multi-faceted matter” and promised to consider it further at a future meeting.

Campaigners, who claim the support of the Oxford University Student Union, 29 college common rooms, more than 100 academics and 550 alumni, expressed disappointment.

Ellen Gibson, an Oxford student, said: “They are choosing not to act at a time when inactivity is an increasingly risky and unethical move.

“Avoidance of divestment by the University will not slow our campaign or indeed the pressing need for meaningful action on the climate crisis.”

OUSU president Louis Trup said a final decision would likely be made in May.

In the meantime, he hoped students would “continue to make it clear that the university has a moral duty to the planet and must listen to the its expert researchers who are leading calls to divest”.

Alumni from 15 colleges have threatened to hand back their degrees if the University does not divest. These include Jeremy Leggett, solar entrepreneur and non-executive director of Carbon Tracker, and journalist George Monbiot.

Leggett said: “I don’t think universities should be training young people to craft a viable civilisation with one hand and bankroll its sabotage with the other.”

Analysis: What has the divestment movement achieved so far?

The growing global divestment campaign highlights the evidence that the majority of fossil fuels need to stay in the ground to avoid dangerous climate change.

Governments have agreed to limit temperature rise to 2C above pre-industrial levels – a goal which will require further curbs on greenhouse gas emissions.

A recent UCL study found that a third of known oil reserves, half of natural gas and more than 80% of coal are “unburnable” in a 2C scenario.

That makes energy companies a financially risky prospect as well as a morally irresponsible investment, campaigners argue.

Stanford University became the first major university to divest from coal in May 2014, with 295 academics now calling for full fossil fuel divestment.

Several faith groups, charities and public authorities have also committed to withdraw finance from sectors that most profit from climate polluting products.

Report: BP embraces climate change risk resolution

Meanwhile, other funds and shareholder activists are taking the path of engagement with energy companies to avoid the most high carbon, high risk investments.

They accept that there will continue to be a role for coal, oil and gas in the energy mix. But they caution against expensive projects that may not be viable if demand is constrained by climate regulations.

Norges Bank, which manages Norway’s government pension fund, last week set out expectations that companies test their business plans against a 2C world.

“This is a strong signal of a changing world, facing up to the reality of acting on climate change,” said Arild Skedsmo, conservation director at WWF-Norway.

“This means coal, oil and gas companies in which it invests are being asked to consider just how robust their business model is in a world managing to tackle the worst impacts of climate change.

“So far, most oil companies have dismissed this as unrealistic and placed their bets against global action on climate change.”

Shell and BP have backed shareholder resolutions that would force them to analyse their exposure to climate risk.

Read more on: Climate finance | Divestment |