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Fossil Free Research

Dozens of students occupied the BP Institute in May. (Photo: Fossil Free Research)

Student Climate Campaigners Welcome 'Momentous Victory' at Cambridge

Advocates say that while renaming the BP Institute would be "symbolically important," adopting a policy to reject "all fossil fuel industry funding and research partnerships" is what's needed.

Jessica Corbett

Student climate activists worldwide on Monday celebrated reporting that the U.K.'s University of Cambridge plans to rename its BP Institute for Multiphase Flow in response to recent protests.

"It's good to see that the pressure is being felt by the university."

"Community and student groups have been campaigning on this so hard, and it's good to see that the pressure is being felt by the university," said a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion (XR) Youth Cambridge. "But we can't address the climate crisis through rebranding—we need an actual end to the University of Cambridge's fossil fuel ties."

The institute was created in 2000 with a £22 million ($26.5 million) donation from BP to host research teams from the Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, and Earth Sciences and Engineering departments.

A new climate protest group, This Is Not a Drill, earlier this month targeted Cambridge buildings tied to the fossil fuel sector with black paint and broken windows. In May, university students and academics occupied the institute to demand an end to research partnerships with the sector—the focal demand of Fossil Free Research, an international campaign launched in March.

The Sunday Times reported this week that "Cambridge is poised to become the first British university to remove an oil company's name from one of its buildings" following such demonstrations, and Stephen Toope, the school's vice-chancellor, "has told academics that a name that better reflects the university's values is to be agreed."

However, a university spokesperson said that it is "a democratic institution and there are always discussions about a very broad range of issues including the names of its many buildings and institutes. No formal decision has been made to rename the BP Institute."

Despite the mixed messages, Fossil Free Research welcomed the reported change as a success "in the wake of powerful and sustained activism from students, community leaders, and academics."

"This is a win not only for the Fossil Free Research campaigners at the University of Cambridge but for the entire Fossil Free Research movement, which spans continents," the campaign said in a statement Monday. "It demonstrates an increasing acceptance by university management at our world's wealthiest universities that their continued partnerships with the oil and gas giants driving climate breakdown are morally indefensible."

Fossil Free Research asserted the new name "must center around the need for a rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels," and suggested "Just Transition Institute" or "Climate Emergency Center" as possible alternatives.

"At the same time as we celebrate this momentous victory, we must also recognize that the University of Cambridge and its peer institutions must do much more than merely removing evidence of these toxic partnerships from the public eye," the group continued.

"While a new name is symbolically important, it is vital that the institute also adopt an official policy of rejecting all fossil fuel industry funding and research partnerships," the campaign added. "It is also essential that the university use its vast resources to support the institute in finding funding sources which do not compromise the institute's espoused research mission."

If the name change happens, it would not be the first time Cambridge responded to pressure from climate activists. In 2020, the university pledged to remove all investments in the fossil fuel industry from its multibillion-dollar endowment fund by 2030.

Some student organizers remain highly critical of Cambridge despite the newly reported decision.

Zak Coleman, who just finished his term as undergraduate president of the Cambridge Students' Union, said Monday that "I have spent the last 12 months calling time and time again on university leadership to stop collaborating with the fossil fuel giants who go on ignoring the desperate calls of scientists and frontline communities, wilfully choking off any chance of a liveable future for my generation. Each time, these calls fell on deaf ears."

"Make no mistake, the renaming of the BP Institute is a deeply cynical PR move intended to shield the university from public criticism—even as it continues to accept millions from the fossil fuel industry's blood-stained coffers," Coleman said. "It is years of high-profile student and community campaigning—not any genuine intention to stop collaborating with the fossil fuel industry—that has embarrassed the university into this decision."

"Until Cambridge ends all partnerships with BP, Shell, Exxon, Schlumberger, and more," the campaigner added, "its mass greenwashing of the industry destroying habitable life on Earth goes on."

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