Putting 'Its Money Where Its Brains Are,' Cambridge Announces Historic Fossil Fuel Divestment of PS3.5 Billion Endowment

After a five-year campaign, the University of Cambridge on Thursday agreed to divest from the fossil fuel industry. (Photo: Zero Carbon Cambridge)

Putting 'Its Money Where Its Brains Are,' Cambridge Announces Historic Fossil Fuel Divestment of PS3.5 Billion Endowment

While welcoming the move as a "massive victory," campaigners said that "this announcement comes five years too late and we'll be pushing for the 2030 commitment to be brought forward."

In what climate activists worldwide called a "massive victory" after a five-year campaign, the University of Cambridge on Thursday committed to removing all direct and indirect investments in the fossil fuel industry from its PS3.5 billion endowment fund by 2030 as part of a broader plan to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2038.

The Cambridge University Endowment Fund (CUEF) is one of the largest of its kind in Europe, according to a statement from the university--which also said that it "intends to ramp up investments in renewable energy as it divests from fossil fuels."

During his annual address Thursday, professor and vice-chancellor Stephen J. Toope explained that "the university is responding comprehensively to a pressing environmental and moral need for action with an historic announcement that demonstrates our determination to seek solutions to the climate crisis. We will approach with renewed confidence our collaborations with government, industry and research partners around the world as together we work for a zero-carbon future."

Cambridge Zero Carbon Campaign, which led the local calls for the university to pull its financial support for the fossil fuel industry, celebrated the "historic victory for the divestment movement" but added that "this announcement comes five years too late and we'll be pushing for the 2030 commitment to be brought forward."

"Divestment is an act of solidarity with those most affected by the climate crisis, and now the university itself has made a historic break with the industry which has destroyed the livelihoods of the most vulnerable communities across the world," tweeted the Parents for Future. The group added that local activists "will continue fighting for a truly fossil-free university--one which doesn't take donations, name professorships and research partnerships with fossil fuel companies but puts climate justice at the heart of its work."

As the Financial Timesreported Thursday:

The move marks a symbolic step for the U.K.'s second-oldest university, which, despite being a leader on science and engineering research related to climate change, has faced sustained criticism over its links to polluting companies.

Oil companies, including BP, ExxonMobil, and Shell, have donated money to the university. The fund's exposure to the energy sector, of which fossil fuel companies are a sub-set, stood at almost PS100 million at the end of last year. It would not reveal details of individual investments.

Cambridge Zero Carbon Campaign said the divesment decision "sends a resounding signal to BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil: no more will Cambridge University profit from the companies who have decimated frontline communities, bankrolled misleading climate science, lobbied against environmental regulations, while continuing to explore for oil even as the planet burns."

"Last year, we exposed the extensive entanglement of the fossil fuel industry within the workings of the university, well beyond their investments," the campaign added. "By continuing to take research funding, invite them to careers fairs, and name their buildings after these companies, the university is clearly still in the oily clutches of this dirty industry. We will be campaigning to end all ties."

Author and activist Bill McKibben, who co-founded 350.org and has long called for higher educations to stop investing in dirty energy, noted some of the university's most famous scientific figures, including Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, in a statement welcoming Thursday's development.

"From Newton to Darwin to Rosalind Franklin, Cambridge University has always been at the forefront of human understanding of the world around us," he said. "With this announcement, the product of hard work over many years by hundreds of devoted campaigners, the university finally puts its money where its brains are, acknowledging the overwhelming threat the fossil fuel industry poses to the planet's climate."

Recognizing that "climate change, ecological destruction, and biodiversity loss present an urgent existential threat, with severe risks to humankind and all other life on Earth," Cambridge chief investment officer Tilly Franklin said that "the Investment Office has responded to those threats by pursuing a strategy that aims to support and encourage the global transition to a carbon-neutral economy."

Specifically, the university plans to:

  • Withdraw investments with conventional energy-focused public equity managers by December 2020;
  • Build up significant investments in renewable energy by 2025;
  • Divest from all meaningful exposure in fossil fuels by 2030; and
  • Aim to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions across its entire investment portfolio by 2038, in line with the broader targets of the university.

"Finally, the voices of those speaking out for climate justice have been listened to and acted on," declared Robert Macfarlane, author and fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. "We welcome this declaration by the university. But as climate fires rage across the American west and Arctic sea-ice extent hits new lows, this must be only the beginning of a wide-scale severing of Cambridge's ties with the fossil fuel industry, and further public recognition of how the immiseration caused by the climate crisis falls most heavily upon the most vulnerable."

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