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14th February 2020

Are we still investing in destruction?

Felix Hanif-Banks looks at the state of divestment and sustainability across UK universities following UoM’s recent commitment to decarbonising its investments
Are we still investing in destruction?
Photo: Fossil Free University of Manchester

The University’s investment policy once again made headlines in recent weeks after a commitment to ‘decarbonising’ was announced. These changes have been undoubtedly welcomed, but how does the Uni stack up nationally, not only in its investments but in wider issues of sustainability?

A People & Planet protest in November that saw the occupation of the John Owens building and threats of a hunger strike has sparked strong action from the University to formally commit to building a more sustainable investment portfolio. On its website, the University has recognised the “urgency of the issue” of climate emergency, and reaffirmed its “position and commitment to being a world-leader in sustainable development.”

The new policy from the University will include reducing investment in certain causes according to their ‘carbon intensity’. Following a student survey asking for feedback on their Revised Policy for Responsible Investment, the University will implement changes to its investment with “immediate effect”.

The most recently published accounts of the University’s investments still painted a similar picture to The Mancunion’s report from 2018. Companies such as BP, Rio Tinto, and Royal Dutch Shell still featured. The report was released in September 2019, some months before the recent commitment to decarbonisation and Nancy Rothwell’s comments that UoM would “do a lot more” than other unis to tackle climate change, so whether such sentiments are reflected in the next publication of investments remains to be seen.

Despite commitments to tackling sustainability through its investments, questions of ethical investment must still be raised. Nestlé and Caterpillar are still prominent recipients of University investment, with the former heavily criticised for its exploitation of indigenous peoples in America, and the latter’s machinery used in the destruction of Palestinian homes in Gaza and the West Bank.

Following Nancy Rothwell’s commitment to doing “a lot more” than other unis, we should assess just what that means. So far, 79 UK and 2 Irish unis have committed to divestment from fossil fuels in some form, with their total investment representing £11bn.

Glasgow University was the first to commit to divestment back in October 2014, fully divesting its £18m portfolio from fossil fuels over the next 10 years. 16 unis committed to some level of divestment across 2015, with the most significant being LSE (£97.2m) and Surrey (£42m), the former pledging to start significant investment in renewables.

Wolfson College, Oxford also pledged to divest its £42m investments from coal and tar-sands, with such a huge figure showing the financial power of Oxford as an institution. Oxford University itself has committed to not investing in coal and tar-sands, but has made no further statements on its investments.

Since then, major universities divesting have included the University of Edinburgh and Cardiff University, who both responded to prolonged student protest. In Cardiff, two students representing People & Planet went on a hunger strike, to which the university responded by committing to full divestment by 2021.

The University of Edinburgh has responded very positively to student protest, and should be seen as a model for Manchester to follow. While UoM currently has no clear indicator of where exactly its sustainable investment will go, Edinburgh has a very transparent section of its website dedicated to sustainability, showing how £60m has been invested into projects that will directly help the environment, as well as further information on social investment.

How exactly UoM will respond to recent protests and “do a lot more” than other unis remains to be seen, but opening a dialogue with students and committing to more than just divestment from fossil fuels seems to be a step in the right direction. The survey for feedback on the new proposed investment policy is open until March 9th, and from that point, we will hopefully see some more concrete changes.

Other aspects of sustainability still require some work for the University, however. calculated how sustainable unis are based on factors such as investment, carbon neutrality, sustainability staff, and workers’ rights, with UoM only managing 59th place. Topping the list were the University of Gloucester and Manchester Metropolitan University, showing sustainability is a very real possibility in Manchester.

What remains important is keeping the discussion going. While headlines of university action and changes to policy are refreshing to see, we’re still in the midst of a very long struggle to promote sustainability everywhere we can. The Guardian reported in 2018 the value of investment funds committed to selling off fossil fuel assets is at least $5tn, dwarfing the total £11bn of investment UK universities have at their disposal. Affecting change within the student bubble is incredibly important, but these small victories must lead to wider conversations, and actions, to truly solve our climate emergency.

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