Fossil fuel divestment debated in Durham


On Wednesday 18th February, students, academics, campaigners and locals met at Van Mildert College to discuss exactly what divestment is and whether it is a good idea for Durham University. Hosted by Docu-Forum, the discussion opened with a screening of ‘Do The Math,’ created by climate campaign group and its co-founder Bill McKibben, which educated the audience on divestment.

As well as being extremely powerful, ‘Do the Math’ is only 42 minutes long and freely accessible and viewable on YouTube.  It documents the rising movement to challenge the fossil fuel industry and revolves around three easy-to-remember numbers, conveying the message that to stay below two degrees Celsius of global warming we can emit only 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide, versus the 2,795 gigatons held in proven reserves by fossil fuel corporations.

What is divestment and is it a good idea for Durham?

Divestment essentially means to ‘stop investing’ and therefore to ‘divert’ investments. For ethical reasons, due to awareness of environmental or human rights implications, some investments are frowned upon by conscious investors. Often this movement comes about as a result of consumer awareness.

The movement to divest from fossil fuels is based on key social and environmental factors that seem invariably tied to global consumption habits, mostly of energy. Many university students in the UK are lobbying for this change in their universities, particularly in London, while others disagree with the movement entirely.

In the case of Durham University’s divestment campaign the matter is slightly different: locals may or may not benefit from such a change, academics’ jobs may be jeopardised, and fossil fuel companies would need to look elsewhere for expertise in an energy market driven by immense competition for extractive and carbon-reducing technologies.

It is common knowledge that Durham University has partnerships with fossil fuel companies. It is less known that the University currently ranks among the top three universities in the country for carbon-capture and storage technology. The question is: should this work be stopped? And if so, why?

Headed by Durham student representatives of the People and Planet organisation, a Durham Student Union society, a campaign is underway to achieve three main goals: to publicly disclose the amount of Durham University investments in fossil fuel companies as well as the amount invested in university research, to prevent this from happening, and to contribute to a wider discourse against fossil fuel use.

Durham University currently ranks among the top three universities in the country for carbon-capture and storage technology

In the past, the success of People and Planet has resulted in successful university divestments from controversial arms and electronics corporations. People and Planet students have lately teamed up with local grassroots organisations like Transition Durham to engage students, academics and members of the public.

On top of petitioning and lobbying the University, a short film is currently being produced by People and Planet in collaboration with Transition Durham as an initiative to raise awareness about divestment on campus and local sites around Durham. Keep a look out for future activities in town or on campus by these campaigners, which not only promise to include political debates but also fun nights out in Durham.

Debate at Van Mildert College

Professor Jon Gluyas: the case against divestment

Jon Gluyas, Professor and Dean of Knowledge Exchange in the Department of Earth Sciences, seemed concerned that a successful divestment campaign would not lessen humankind’s addiction to fossil fuels and would shift ownership entirely into national companies who would not be answerable to the public. Professor Gluyas also reasoned that the bulk of global petroleum is owned by nations that have no interest in arresting climate change, which makes divestment seem like an unwise geopolitical move.

Moreover, oil underpins society as well know it. Although certainly not a cheerful form of energy, oil is still a cheap and productive natural resource that is necessary for important derivatives like plastics. The sudden loss of oil as both a concentrated energy source and the basis for many products we use would lead to a collapse of society.

If we were to reverse the effects of climate change, we would need to remove CO2 from both current and past activity at a huge industrial scale. Only a repurposed petroleum industry could achieve this. In other words: lose that industry and we would fail to tackle climate change. Therefore, instead of divestment we should all be investing in the industry in order to turn things around.

Suzanne Jeffery: the case for divestment

Suzanne Jeffery, Vice-Chair for the Campaign Against Climate Change (CACC) responded to the professor’s cautionary words. Like him, Jeffery felt that the catastrophic results of a fossil fuel-based future should ultimately be brought to an end as soon as possible. However, she insisted that this means developing a campaign against governments and important actors within the private sphere by showing worldwide solidarity to stop climate change.

For Jeffery, achieving this goal includes stopping investments in fossil fuels and transitioning towards a carbon-neutral future. Moreover, although the need for jobs and development is often cited as an argument in opposition to divestment, the reality is that livelihoods are threatened by climate change – tackling the problem can create a million climate jobs in the UK.

Jeffery referred to her experience in the 1980s when a public call for divestment emerged from the global Anti-Apartheid Movement. Rather than drawing on parallels between the two divestment movements, Jeffery commented on how similar arguments against divestment were used by corporations investing in South Africa who feared the losses of their fortunes.

BP-funded doctoral programme continues the debate…

After Wednesday’s Docu-Forum, the debate on divestment continued. On Friday 20th February, postgraduate researchers and academics of the Durham Energy Institute’s BP-funded Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in energy invited guest speaker Louise Rouse to talk further on the issue of divestment at Durham.

To reverse the effects of climate change, we would need to remove CO2 from both current and past activity at a huge industrial scale

Rouse, who is former Director of Engagement for a responsible investment campaign charity, ShareAction, as well as independent consultant to Greenpeace on frontier fossil fuels and capital markets, spoke to a wide interdisciplinary group of students, hailing from Earth Sciences to Mathematics. She discussed the growing movement challenging universities and cultural institutions to divest their interests in and sever ties with fossil fuel companies.

Her expertise in law and corporate finance shed light on the issue from a pragmatic perspective that not only highlighted the reasons behind the divestment movement from the perspective of climate change but more specifically the costs (climate and financial) related to the continued expansion of the fossil fuel industry.

Further afield from this topic, a debate ensued about the motivations, challenges, and implications of international oil companies’ moves towards high risk, high cost oil projects, including offshore Arctic drilling. Rouse questioned fossil fuel companies’ predictions of ever increasing demand, while ignoring the destruction and economic implications of catastrophic climate change that would likely accompany such demand.

Photograph: James Ennis

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