People & Planet, National Union of Students and Students Organising for Sustainability UK have announced that more than half of the UK’s 154 public universities have committed to divest from fossil fuels since the campaign began in 2012.
University of York became the 77th university to divest from all fossil fuels in October 2019, followed by Leeds Trinity University becoming the 78th upon signing the Fossil Free Declaration.
A total of 21 of the UK’s 24 research-intensive Russell Group universities have divested while 10 of the 14 ‘Former 94 Group’ have also made the commitment.
Proportionally fewer of newer ‘post-1992’ universities comprise the divested institutions with 33 of 78 making a commitment to exclude fossil fuels. University of Glasgow was the first UK university to divest in October 2014 following a student-led campaign.
People & Planet research shows that £12.4bn of endowments across the higher education sector have been divested, in large part due to the divestment of large investment portfolios of University of Edinburgh and the partial divestments of Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
Both Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are included in the list of divested institutions due to their commitments to remove direct investments from coal and tar sands companies. However, both are subject to high-profile student campaigns to remove all fossil fuel investments, including through external fund managers.
On top of the 78 divested universities, 7 Oxbridge colleges have divested the funds they directly control due to student lobbying.
Chris Saltmarsh, co-director of climate change campaigns at People & Planet, said: “Wildfires are wreaking destruction across Australia, the Amazon and beyond while fossil fuel companies profit from the extraction to blame for this devastation.
"Excluding this industry from our universities is now a mainstream and majority position.
"Universities not yet divested can now choose to stand with their students on the right side of history or be forever known as complicit in the crimes of climate breakdown.”
Around 30 universities do not currently have an investment portfolio. In those cases, institutions can sign People & Planet and National Union of Students’ Fossil Free Declaration affirming that they have no investments in fossil fuels and commit to never making any. 14 universities have signed the declaration.
In 2012, students in the People & Planet student activist network began campaigning for their universities to stop investing in fossil fuel companies following a call to action by academic and campaigner Bill McKibben.
Campaigns began at the University of Manchester, University of East Anglia and University College London. Since then there have been student-led campaigns on over 100 campuses in the UK. Currently there are at least 30 active divestment campaigns.
The divestment campaign aims to use the investment portfolios of reputable public institutions – like universities – to stigmatise the fossil fuel industry which campaigners say profits from the carbon-intensive activities driving climate breakdown.
Camilla Zerr, Chair of Sheffield People & Planet during the group’s successful divestment campaign (2013-2016), said: “Being part of Sheffield University’s divestment campaign was by far the most exciting, character-building and empowering experience I had as a student.
"It shaped my world-view and career choices. Since then, councils, the UK Parliament, international investment funds, and more have also made fossil-free commitments: it’s amazing to be involved in this powerful movement as it continues to grow.”
Campaigns have included a range of campaign tactics from petitions gathering thousands of signatories, lobbying university management, political education, creative actions and non-violent direct actions including occupying university buildings and hunger strikes.
Marianne Brooker is The Ecologist's content editor. This article is based on a press release from People & Planet.