UEA is renowned as a pioneering institution for environmental and social responsibility. However, less well-known is that UEA has over £130,000 invested in the fossil fuel companies Shell, BG Group, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto. Confronting this paradox, UEA Healthy Planet hosted a debate on 22nd October on the question: should UEA cut its ties with the fossil fuel industry?
NHS Sustainable Development Unit Director, Dr David Pencheon, offered a health-focused perspective. “Unless universities and health systems start divesting and showing visible signs saying, ‘This is ethically, health-wise and economically undesirable’, we’re going to perpetuate it. As human beings, we’re good at perpetuating yesterday’s habits today, and we need big symbolic signs to say it’s not normal anymore. Somebody needs to stand up and universities are a great way of doing it”.
The union’s Campaigns and Democracy Officer, Chris Jarvis, said, “Over the last two years we’ve seen UEA drag its feet while divestment nationally and internationally has been snowballing”. He argued that divestment has been historically significant for students in the anti-apartheid movement, and that “previous campaigns against the arms trade and the worst practices of the tobacco industry have divorced those industries from their moral license to operate”.
Jarvis went on to claim that divestment represents a deeper, symbolic shift. “To continue its reputation as a progressive institution on these issues, continued investments are, fundamentally, a hypocrisy. We know about the fossil fuel industry and the things it’s responsible for: exacerbating the worst aspects of climate change, lobbying governments to slow down regulations on the environment and to stop effective action being taken on climate change”.
UEA Environmental Sciences graduate and former Fossil Free campaigner Emma Silk agreed. “Why, with its environmental credentials, is UEA funding one of the industries doing the most to cause climate change; funding the industry who want to burn more carbon than save it, continuing to hunt for more reserves in more extreme ways? These companies are not currently doing enough to ensure we meet a low-carbon energy future quick enough. Doing so would go against their bottom line. They are ignoring the science and actively using their substantial funds and power in order to decrease awareness that climate change is happening at all”, she said, referring to links with think tanks promoting climate change misinformation.
UEA justifies inaction, claiming its investments comply with their policy that long-term investments are made into “sustainable and ethically appropriate funds”. But Silk pointed out that “many fossil fuel companies have an absolutely terrible record when it comes to human rights and environmental abuses”.
Financial activist Brett Scott said: “Financial arguments are often contrasted to moral arguments, as if these were two separate realms of society. If you want to go into the traditional financial mentality and argue on those terms, it’s all about risk and return.” For example, Carbon Tracker advances the ‘Carbon Bubble’ argument: that companies’ fossil fuel reserves will become “stranded assets” as international agreements force them to leave reserves underground. Scott contested, “That argument doesn’t actually challenge the fundamental ideology of the financial sector, that somehow, if returns are high, it overrides the fact you’re undermining ecological stability and humankind itself. You should challenge that assumption. Those are two separate routes you can go down, and you’ve got to balance those two types of debates”.
He explained, “Consumer campaigns are difficult. Everyone’s complicit. But who has the most power to change something right now? The industry itself. Historically, protest is the only thing that actually creates change. Climate change is on the agenda because of groups like Greenpeace. The behind-the-scenes people who do careful negotiation only come afterwards when they’re forced to. The vanguard groups always put the things onto the agenda. They, by definition, have to be utopian and somewhat crude. If you don’t, then you have stasis”.
UEA economics lecturer Dr Fabio Arico offered the least pro-divestment view. “Our role as a charity is looking after improving our learning, teaching, and research. That’s our main objective. Can we really afford the cost of divestment if the impact is not that high? Wouldn’t we rather do something else? I feel that the role of UEA in terms of engaging with environmentally friendly policy has been pretty prominent, so we’re doing a good job.”
Professor Andrew Watkinson, UEA Environmental Sciences lecturer and former director of the Tyndall Centre, reiterated UEA’s role in championing climate research while climate change remains marginalised in UK politics. “What’s quite clear is that the current government has weakened its resolve. It’s removed subsidies from renewable energy generation, whereas it’s still promoting subsidies for fossil fuels”.
Jarvis concluded: “For the executive team who aren’t here and have decided to continue having investments in the fossil fuel industry, I think their actions are an absolute disgrace. To invest is to be complicit in climate change, but also, to refuse to engage in the groundswell of student opposition to these investments is ultimately ignoring the fact they are key stakeholders and the primary funders of this university. Fundamentally, that money being invested in the fossil fuel industry is your money you pay into the university in your tuition fees. Together, we can make sure this issue won’t go away, and by joining collectively, we can make sure the movement for divestment here at UEA, nationally and internationally is too big for institutions to ignore”.