Students just smashed Leeds University's arguments against divestment

Tuesday 31-05-2016 - 14:29

Last month, the University of Leeds issued a statement explaining why they weren't going to listen to 83% of their students and divest from fossil fuels. Last week, students offered the university council a point by point response. And it's amazing.

83% of students who voted in a recent referendum at Leeds University Union wanted the university to divest from fossil fuels. In response, the university council put out this statement, announcing that they wouldn't be divesting.

Below, we have reproduced the statement, with People & Planet Leeds' point by point responses inserted in bold. They offered this response to university council members as they protested outside their meeting last week.

We think it's an argument the university can't ignore. It's time to Divest-Invest.

The University of Leeds is committed to helping the world move as quickly as possible to a low carbon future.

We have a strong track record upon which to build.

For example, we had five lead authors contributing to the IPCC report which informed the Paris climate talks in December 2015.

Piers Forster, one of the main authors of the IPCC is in favour of divestment and one of the first signatories to our petition. It is absurd to claim the success of having researchers working for the IPCC and then ignore what they have to say about the best ways of tackling climate change. Indeed, the current lecturers’ letter criticising this statement to which over 70 lecturers have signed in a few days is organised by the Sustainability Research Institute, which contains some of the world’s leading research in to climate change and sustainable economics.

Looking to the future, we will shortly be launching the Priestley Centre for Climate - a world-leading centre for solution-driven climate research.

It is against this backdrop that the University’s Council – its governing body – recently considered a proposal from the students’ union that the University divest itself of direct share-holdings in fossil fuel companies.

The Council shares the over-arching objective of the students’ proposal – to champion the move to a low-carbon economy and to limit and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Any points of divergence rest on the most effective way to achieve this objective.

Having given very careful consideration to the evidence and the arguments, the Council concluded that, while it is imperative that the University continues to take action (see below), it could not support divestment at this time, for the following reasons.

Consistency. It would be ethically questionable for the University to divest from fossil fuel companies while continuing to rely on fossil fuels for so much of its day-to-day activity,

The idea that no action can be taken to a change a system we are dependent on is completely wrong. The reason we are still dependent on fossil fuels is the result of the stranglehold that these companies have on our investment and our subsidies. Refusing to take action such as divestment perpetuates our dependence on fossil fuels and locks us into a system that is ultimately destructive for ourselves and the planet. It is important to note that the idea of stopping fossil fuels use immediately was never mentioned, mainly because it would be disastrous. It should also be noted that the University is mainly off grid with energy from the combined heat and power plant at the hospital and solar panels around campus, therefore it is already progressing from relying on fossil fuels for its day-to-day activities.

…while continuing to take money from fossil fuel companies to support research (see below), while training students to work in mining and petrochemical industries, and while accepting donations from people who have worked in the fossil fuel sector.

The issue of research funding, student training or donations is irrelevant to the question of investments in the industry. It is important to judge each idea on its own merits. It is proven by the experience of the other universities that have divested that there has been no effect on any of these things. There is already an inherent contradiction in running degree programmes orientated towards the fossil fuel industry in the same university and sometimes even in the same building as degree programmes based around sustainability. This kind of inconsistency would not emerge from divesting. The University’s degree options are based on the desires of incoming students and the job market and these will change over time, however the University’s control of its finances is not tied in such a way.

It is also difficult to distinguish ethically between different types of companies that make money from fossil fuels. Arguably there is little difference between those that extract fossil fuels on the one hand and, for example, supermarkets that sell petrol.

Fossil fuel companies are involved in extraction. They pollute people’s water supplies, in some cases making them unusable, as has been the experience of the Beaver Lake Cree community in Canada. They employ security that uses violent tactics, sometimes resulting in death, against people who challenge their environmental and lands rights records, as has been the case around the Tintaya mine in Peru and in Ogoniland. They fund some of the most oppressive governments in the world for example the military dictatorship in Azerbaijan. It is the fossil fuel companies, not the supermarkets, who hold more than five times the amount of Carbon that is safe to burn while limiting climate change. Fossil fuel companies’ entire business model revolves around the extraction and sale of these fuels, whereas supermarkets simply meet customer demand with a range of products.

It would prove very challenging to set effective parameters for divestment.

There have been clear parameters set by People and Planet, with 300 named companies to divest from. Sarasins also offers a fossil free portfolio in compliance with this to Sheffield University, proving that it is feasible. [Additional note from NUS: we also provide clear parameters, encouraging institutions to divest specifically from extracting companies, at a minimum]

Research. The University currently works with fossil fuel producing companies to develop low-carbon technologies, for which it receives research funding from industry. In order to be consistent and credible, the Council believes divestment and cessation of this research funding would have to go hand-in-hand, and it does not consider it appropriate at this time to give up research that could be important for the future.

Not wanting to take one action shouldn’t prevent you from taking another. Your unwillingness to take one action doesn’t undermine the real benefits of the other. Other universities’ experience of divestment have shown that companies do not deny research funding because of divestment. In future, research ties may be cut as part of the transition to a low-carbon economy but there is no reason why these actions should be simultaneous where the research funded is socially beneficial.  

We believe that by researching and working with fossil fuel companies, they can become part of the solution.

Timing. As efforts to move to a low carbon economy gain momentum, there may come a point where divestment can help provide the impetus to bring about necessary change.

The time is now. Civil society groups, faith groups and charitable foundations are divesting more every week. To avoid stranded assets and show the University of Leeds as a leading University in ethical standards it needs to divest now. In the past two weeks three Universities have taken steps to divest from fossil fuels. They join a group of sixty-two Universities globally that have committed to at least partial divestment.

But widespread divestment - at a time when we are all still dependent on fossil fuels and when we need to invest in low carbon transitions - might disadvantage some of the World’s most vulnerable nations. The developing world has few alternatives to fossil fuels.  

Firstly, these companies are parasites to the economies of the ‘world’s most vulnerable nations’. Often their techniques involve enriching the country's elites, and the European and North American owners of the fossil fuel companies, without spreading the wealth through the majority of the population. This will often be maintained by the violent repression of those who object to the influence of fossil fuel companies and the local elites on their economy.
Key examples of this effect are in the oil-rich countries of Nigeria, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia. For an academic discussion of these issues see Schatz’s ‘Pirate Capitalism and the Inert Economy of Nigeria’. The effect of fossil fuel exploitation on vulnerable groups is overwhelmingly negative. Examples of this can be seen through the effects of tar sand exploitation (funded by Shell) on the indigenous people of Canada. The increasing tar sand exploitation has led to the poisoning of their water supply and severe damage to the natural environment that they depend on to survive.  This is not counting the emotional and social effects of the oil spills on religious sites. In North Dakota since tar sands exploitation began violence against women have increased 168%. The suicide rate among indigenous youth is 10 times higher than in the general population, often linked to resource extraction amongst other factors.
Poorer countries are often leaders in the use of renewable technology, particularly in rural areas as solar panels and wind turbines do not require the same level of infrastructure as the maintenance of a fossil fuel based economy, for example you don’t need oil pipelines to be built. In actual fact the developing world has few alternatives to renewables or biofuels and this form of economy should be encouraged for the development to progress and for the good of the planet. Also fossil fuel distribution networks in poorer countries are unlikely to be significantly affected.
Climate change itself damages the ‘world’s most vulnerable nations’. The deaths caused by extreme weather in the Philippines are influenced by climate change. The shrinking landmass of small islands is influenced by climate change. The deaths as a result of the extreme drought in India are influenced by climate change.
Climate change makes it more difficult to grow crops and results in more extreme weather, as well as increasing the spread of vector-borne infectious diseases. These are most likely to affect countries where large portions of their population are dependent on agriculture and therefore their livelihoods will be ruined by unpredictable rainfall. These are poorer countries which don’t have the wealth to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Severe weather is more likely to be deadly in these countries where they don’t have the resources to evacuate, build sea walls, shelters, or buy food when their crops are ruined. That is why when natural disasters hit poorer countries more people die. Climate change targets the most vulnerable nations, not divestment. In fact, organisations and communities in the Global South have been involve in calling for divestment, including when the University of Edinburgh made the same argument.

Influence. Divestment would deprive the University of influence as a shareholder to encourage the companies in which we invest to adopt environmentally responsible practices.

These companies work predominantly with fossil fuels. Any attempt by the shareholders to persuade them to change their ways has failed. The first climate change shareholder motion appeared at Exxon 24 years ago. They still haven’t succeeded. Indeed the amount that BP have spent on renewables has declined by 80% over the past 7 years, so that they can focus on their fossil fuel income. Engagement with these companies does not work. If you want to invest in an environmentally responsible company, the most effective alternative is to divest and reinvest in fully sustainable companies.

However, the University recognises the urgent need to reduce emissions and to this end it will do the following:

  • Keep pressure on fossil fuel companies to move as quickly as possible to a low-carbon future. In doing so we will work with academics from the Priestley Centre and also with our investment manager (Sarasins), which is already a member of an investor coalition supporting major companies to help prepare for a low-carbon transition.

  • More proactively promote public engagement on the issue of climate change. As previously noted, the University has a lot to contribute here. Initiatives like the Priestley Centre provide a platform on which to raise the issue further.

  • Continue to drive sustainability on campus. At the March meeting the Council agreed to adopt the University’s sustainability strategy which commits us to reducing our own carbon emissions by 35% by 2020, and looking beyond this to becoming a low carbon organisation.  We continue to develop initiatives which help us reduce our carbon footprint and integrate our teaching and research into our operations.

  • Keep the position on investments under review to ensure we respond appropriately to developments.

Talking is no substitute for action. If we believe climate change is a threat to our livelihoods, then we need divestment not more hot air. We support the reducing of the University’s carbon emissions. This is not enough. It is on thing to commit to focused actions based within the University, and another to engage with a global political and financial divestment movement.. One action does not preclude other actions.

In summary, the University is committed to supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy. We believe we can most effectively do this through teaching, and through research to reduce emissions from the use of fossil fuels and develop alternative energy sources, alongside leveraging our considerable reputation . in this area to encourage behavioural change. 

Our fossil fuel investments will ruin our reputation as a University that cares about student voice, and as a University with credible and legitimate views on climate change.
The University’s actions have already brought down public criticism as is being witnessed today.
If you wish to find out more about this response or have any questions please feel free to email us.

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