In January we met with Professor Richard Jones, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield. Professor Jones writes a blog about energy and research, and teaches a first year physics course on sustainable technologies. He is also the chair of the public values group, who first discussed our divestment proposals, and he brought our requests directly to the University Executive Board later that month.
When we met with him, he provided a number of his personal arguments for why divesting from fossil fuels isn't a good idea. Some of his reservations are shared by the University of Glasgow academics in their open letter, written in response to their university council voting to divest. Below are the points made by Richard Jones and by the Glasgow academics, and our corresponding counter arguments.
Investment in fossil fuel companies pales in comparison to the support we give them by buying their products.
The University of Sheffield’s annual utility bill comes to approximately £7.5million, roughly half of which is spent on electricity. At the time of writing, ~70% of electricity flowing through the national grid is generated by coal and natural gas. The University therefore supports fossil fuel companies in the most direct way possible - by buying their product. What use is it then, to divest a few £million in a one-off act of defiance, when they are committed to supporting the industry in other ways? At the heart of this conundrum is the difference between buying and using fossil fuels, and validating the industry with our financial ties.
There’s no denying that our society has an existential dependence on fossil fuels today, but this in no way removes our right to object to that dependence. To belittle divestment campaigners because of the presence of plastics in the their clothes, or their use of electronics, is a childish simplification. If only those those living in yurts, eating organic food, and wearing no shoes had the right to campaign for the environment, progress would be devastatingly slow. Take for example the first-past-the-post voting system; those who (sensibly) decry it as broken and undemocratic have a choice, they can participate and vote for change, or throw a tantrum and not vote at all. By continuing to invest in fossil fuels while acknowledging the need to de-carbonise our energy supply, the University isn’t using its vote.
It is imperative that as a society we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. This of course will be an enormous task, requiring strong political action in tandem with mass behavioural change. If the University were to divest, we would not only see the withdrawal of funds, but of significant social capital from a dangerous industry. While the University’s holdings are a drop in the greasy ocean of fossil fuel finance, it sociopolitical power as a higher education institution is a force to be reckoned with. In this sense, the divestment movement is amassing to become greater than the sum of its parts. This is the bigger picture that critics of Glasgow University’s vote fail to appreciate. The increasingly reckless actions of fossil fuel companies are enabled by their profitable image and purported viability. According to a recent University of Oxford study, divestment is an effective tactic against the political might and social standing of the industry. The fossil fuel divestment movement is growing faster than any before it, testament to the urgency required. By adding their voice, the University of Sheffield can bring society one step closer to a future beyond fossil fuels.
Fossil fuel companies provide a product that society relies on, and it cannot be immoral or unethical to do this.
Indeed, unlike apartheid or tobacco, fossil fuel companies provide a product that society uses every day, and has no easy alternative to. Some would argue that because they provide a product that is so fundamental to our daily lives, the energy sector should not operate for profit at all. We touch upon this point below.
However, the idea that an industry that supplies a vital product should be exempt from ethical and moral scrutiny is deeply unsettling. If tomorrow BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron changed their business plan so that they were suddenly not-for-profit, or they invested 100% of their profit into solutions to the climate crisis, then this argument might hold some ground. But there is no chance of that happening. Society has allowed these multi-national corporations to exploit the environment, local communities and indigenous people for decades, for profit. They are literally making millions at the expense of the planet.
In 2013 (not even an election year!), fossil fuel companies spent $213 million lobbying US and EU decision makers on energy and climate issues. That’s $580,000 every day, pushing politicians to act in the interests of the fossil fuel industry. In addition, these companies push out greenwashing advertisements, bigging up their puny investments in cleaner energy sources. Their social license to operate is fed by immense levels of dirty funding, not by a true moral compass.
This may be true, but misses the point. Aside from the direct financial aspect of divestment from fossil fuel companies, one of the main aspects of the campaign is to revoke their social license to operate in the way they do. The planet doesn’t care who owns shares in the company that spills oil in the Gulf of Mexico, drills for oil in the Arctic, or gives out the most carbon emissions. But we, the students, care who owns those shares. If it’s immoral to wreck the climate, then it’s immoral to profit from that wreckage, and it’s immoral to invest in it too. Arguing about which companies hold the biggest fossil fuel reserves is a meaningless diversion.
Renewable technology is not yet ready to replace all fossil fuel use. Immobilising the fossil fuel industry will not solve this - instead we need more investment in renewables.
Some would claim that the technology required to power the entirety of Britain on zero emissions already exists (e.g the Zero Carbon Britain report). But regardless of that debate, simply pushing for more investment in lower carbon technologies, and not challenging the huge fossil fuel industry, will be equally ineffective.
Duncan Clarke articulates clearly why blaming rising emissions on population growth and lack of renewable technology is simply incorrect. As renewable production of electricity has grown over the past 20 years, so the production of coal, oil and gas has risen steadily. The market share of renewable energies (excluding hydro-electricity, which has been around for decades) is still below 3%. Without an incredibly strong push to phase out fossil fuels, either by global moral outrage through divestment, or a heavy carbon tax (on which our political leaders have failed us), further renewable energy research and development is almost pointlessly ineffective. Regardless of how much renewable energy the world has access to, those with access to fossil fuel reserves will still dig them up and sell them, for as long as we let them.
That said, it’s true that renewable energy research is grossly under funded. The International Energy Agency thinks we’ll need to invest $1trillion in clean energy every year until 2050. One of the biggest reasons why public research into energy technology has been so low over the past 20 years is the widespread privatisation of the utility network. The marketisation of energy has led to a drought of research funding, as utility companies could get a better return on their investments in the financial sector than by investing in energy research. As divestment campaigners we are 100% behind the call to re-nationalise the energy sector, but this is not within our power, nor the power of the University.
There is a danger of creating an 'attention deficit', whereby society stops engaging on climate change issues, after a campaign like this is successful.
We believe this is simply not true. In poll after poll, climate change ranks very low on the list of issues that worries society. In fact, it’s often not even on the list of options to choose from. Those who do already care deeply for the environment and for our fight against climate change, won’t suddenly decide to stop worrying, campaigning and calling for action, just because the University chooses to divest. The divestment campaign is pushing for the exact opposite. By keeping climate change in the news and on the agenda, we can push the subject back to where it belongs - at the top of the list of issues we face today.