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The divestment debate: should UCL sell up?

By ucyow3c, on 8 April 2015


Written by Brigid Marriott, Faculty Communications Officer, UCL Laws

As calls for fossil fuel divestment grow, universities across the world are being forced to consider the management of their endowments. Stanford, Glasgow and Sydney universities have already begun the process of full or partial divestment from fossil fuels.

Oxford has decided to defer its decision on the issue, while Harvard is preparing to fight a lawsuit – brought by its own students – to try to force the university to drop its direct investments in coal, oil and gas companies.

Fiddlers Ferry power station

Fiddlers Ferry power station, Cheshire (credit: Alan Godfrey)

On Tuesday 24 March, the Guardian newspaper published a letter from UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres to her alma mater, Swarthmore College, calling on the college’s administration to decarbonise its investment portfolio.

That same evening, six experts from across UCL gathered to debate whether the institution should do the same and sell off its £21 million investment in fossil fuel companies.

Speaking in favour of the motion that: “this house would divest from fossil fuels”, were Professor Chris Rapley (UCL Earth Sciences), Professor Jane Holder (UCL Laws), Professor Hugh Montgomery (UCL Institute for Human Health and Performance) and Professor Jane Rendell (UCL Bartlett). Against were Professor Anthony Finkelstein (UCL Engineering) and Professor Alan Penn (UCL Bartlett).

Prefacing the arguments, the debate’s chair, UCL Honorary Professor and editor of the Lancet, Richard Horton, acknowledged the unique position that universities occupy in society. Not only creators of knowledge, universities have the ability to discharge moral leadership more freely than in: “the messier, more complex world of political decision making”.

UCL, Professor Horton said, had positioned itself as a world-leader in thinking about the impacts of climate change on society. Its research had shown the complexity of the threat facing the world as a result of climate change was “going to affect the felt lives of women, children and men around the planet”.

The arguments put forward by the speakers in favour of the motion, focused mainly on the environmental, health and financial risks associated with continued investment in fossil fuels.

Professor Montgomery pointed out that financial organisations and experts from around the world were already shedding their investments as demand – particularly from China – slows, and Professor Rapley warned that the fossil fuel market was a bubble ready to burst, suggesting that it would be “wise and prudent” to redirect UCL’s investments to alternative energy technologies while there was still time.

On the other hand, both Professor Finkelstein and Professor Penn highlighted the potential to exert influence and support the transition to a low carbon world as shareholders and research partners. “Ownership of an asset,” said Professor Finkelstein, “confers power as well.”

Professor Penn called on the audience to think carefully about the principles that we apply to our personal investments as well as to those that we ask of an institution like UCL. We all personally support fossil fuel companies in one way or another each time we pay our electricity bill, so would divestment by individual institutions really be the best approach?

A better idea, Professor Penn argued, would be to agglomerate and to use a single voice to call for a shift in policy. The world’s higher education institutions, their pension funds and collective investments should seriously invest in these companies to the point that they have a controlling stake.

Again and again throughout the debate, the speakers called for UCL to ‘do the right thing’. Some of the most powerful arguments from the evening were also the most emotive: what impact would divestment have on academic freedom and autonomy? Is it hypocritical to engage in research with a company and not invest in them too? What values should UCL instil in its students and staff? And how do we define what is a ‘good’ investment?

A baseline vote before the debate showed that the majority of the audience was in favour of the motion, three were against, and 16 people opted for ‘don’t know’.

At the end, a majority was still in favour and three were still against, but it was interesting to see what the ‘don’t knows’ had made of the proceedings. Of the original 16, 12 people had changed their minds – 11 were now in favour of the motion, while one person had switched from in favour to don’t know.

Throughout the debate, one thing became clear: everyone agreed that alternative solutions to the way that we produce and consume energy need to be found – and quickly.

As one person in the audience pointed out, the question about divestment appeared to come down to a choice between revolution or evolution: cutting all ties with fossil fuel companies, or playing a part in the transition to a low carbon world.

However, the impact that this debate could have on the moral and ethical approach that UCL takes to its research and its partnerships, and what it defines as the ‘right’ choice, will undoubtedly demand much further discussion.

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