Oxford University takes a Moral Stand on Coal and Tar-sands

Oxford, UK — On Monday 18 May, the University of Oxford confirms it is excluding companies involved in the extraction of coal and tar-sands from its direct investments on ethical grounds. University Court passed policy that states that it will also ‘avoid future investments’ in coal and tar sands, but failed to agree to disclose its investments publicly. Students, academics and alumni are celebrating this victory after campaigning for the university and its colleges to divest from the fossil fuel industry for over a year [1].

Bill McKibben, founder 350.org said: “Oxford may be the greatest university on our planet, and if anyone thought its great age might keep it from shaping the future, this decision should prove them wrong. Today it has offered great leadership on the crisis of our time.”

Andrew Taylor, Fossil Free Campaigns Manager at People & Planet [2], said: “Many world leaders have studied under Oxford University’s spires. They should be taking notes today. The lesson is: it’s time to phase out coal and axe tar sands.”

Oxford University is a global leader on climate change research with its Smith School producing influential research on fossil fuels becoming ‘Stranded Assets’. The University endowment is worth around £3.8 billion and is one of the biggest in the UK [3]. Today’s victory is the result of a campaign which successfully gathered support from thousands of students, academics and alumni. The Student Union (OUSU) endorsed divestment, alongside 41 college common rooms representing 12,500 students, and over one hundred academics have signed an open letter calling for action from the university [4].

The University of Oxford joins four other UK universities which have made commitments to exclude fossil fuels from their investments: Glasgow University, Bedfordshire University, the University of London SOAS, and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine [5]. Fossil Fuel divestment is the fastest-growing divestment movement in history and is continuing to gain momentum [6]. Around 200 institutions globally, with a combined asset size of over $50 billion, have committed to divest, including the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, the British Medical Association, and the Church of England [7].

Dr Felix Pinkert Lecturer of Philosophy, University of Oxford said: “By excluding investments in coal and tar-sands extraction, the University of Oxford demonstrates that universities can carry out their academic mission while also acting with moral integrity in their investment choices.”

However, the decision today has received some criticism from campaigners as it applies only to directly owned shares, not all investments made by the university’s fund, and does not commit the university to divesting from all fossil fuels. In particular, the exclusions for coal and tar sands only kick in for companies where over ten percent of their production comes from either of these sources, which means that Oxford can continue to invest in companies like Shell and BP even though they have significant tar sands projects. Rather than the end of the campaign. Activists see this as an important victory and the first step towards a fully sustainable investment policy that would include divestment from all fossil fuel companies.

Andrew Taylor, Fossil Free Campaigns Manager at People & Planet, said: “When it comes to big oil this is a cautious first step. Tar sands need to be kept in the ground and universities should divest from any company digging them out. If you live in the shadow of tar sand extraction and your baby been air lifted to hospital after drinking the water after a spill, it doesn’t matter if under 10% of the culprit’s production comes from tar sands.”

In addition, today’s decision does not commit the university to increasing transparency around the university’s investments. Currently the university does not publicly disclose which companies it invests in and has rejected attempts so obtain the information through Freedom of Information requests. Critics are concerned that there may be loopholes in the agreement which the university could exploit to later overturn today’s decision.

Cara Turton-Chambers, Oxford University Fossil Free student campaigner, said: “While we are pleased with today’s results, we as students feel that transparency is an issue within the university structures. Full disclosure of the university’s investments should only confirm what they have told us today.”

University of Oxford alumni added their voice to the student and staff campaign with over 850 pledging to withhold donations to the University of Oxford until it fully divests [8] and occupying a university administration building after the University Court deferred this decision on 16th March 2015. Furthermore, seventy alumni, including green energy entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett and journalist George Monbiot, will be handing back their Oxford University degrees this Saturday, 23rd May, as the University has not committed to divestment from all fossil fuel companies.

Sunniva Taylor, an Oxford alumna said: ”With the decision today the university has taken a step forward, but not a big enough one. I, with others, have decided to hand back my degree, in protest. This is not just a question of integrity for me. I want to use the privilege having it gives me to try and shake things up; to use my power to draw attention to others.”



Andrew Taylor (Fossil Free Campaigns Manager, People & Planet): 07801 568 782 and 01865 264 180, andrew.taylor@peopleandplanet.org


Notes to editors:

[1] Oxford University divestment campaign: https://oxfordunifossilfree.wordpress.com

[2] People & Planet is Britain’s largest student network campaigning on environmental justice and human rights coordinates the UK university fossil fuel divestment movement. Over the past 18 months, students in the People & Planet network have launched over 65 Fossil Free campaigns across the UK, engaging over 30,000 students. See http://peopleandplanet.org/fossil-free

[3] UK universities invest an estimated £5.2 billion annually in the fossil fuel industry, with the University of Oxford’s endowment worth around £3.8 billion. See Platform London, Knowledge & Power (2013) at http://platformlondon.org/p-publications/unis/

[4] https://oxfordacademicsfordivestment.wordpress.com/

[5] Divestment campaigners are calling for UK universities to freeze new investments in fossil fuels and withdraw their existing holdings over a five year period in response to concerns over climate change. Campaigners argue unburnable fossil fuel reserves represent a ‘carbon bubble’ and are an inflated investment, as research by the International Energy Agency indicates there is at least three times more fossil fuel in reserve that could be exploited today than is compatible with keeping global temperatures below 2oC, and over ten times more fossil fuel resource than could be exploited in the future. Decisions are expected at Manchester University, Leeds University and Warwick University over the next couple of months.

[6] http://www.arabellaadvisors.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Measuring-the-Global-Divestment-Movement.pdf

[7] For a full list of all the institutions that have divested, see https://gofossilfree.org/commitments/

[8] https://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/oxford-university-alumni-call-for-divestment