As the threat of climate change continues to loom large over society, activists are turning to more creative methods to encourage the large-scale change that we urgently need. Where traditional political methods have failed, divestment is now making serious progress on university campuses, in city halls, and financial institutions around the world.
The global divestment commitment by universities now stands at £540 billion and the UK’s institutions alone account for over £10 billion of this. A surge in divestment movements in the last two years now means 49 universities in the UK, more than a third of the total, have committed to divest from fossil fuels. This jump towards a serious statement on fossil fuels by our most respected institutions is thanks in large part to the many vocal and committed student movements that began across the country in 2013.
It was in Glasgow in late 2014 that fossil fuel divestment gained its foothold in the UK. After a year of student campaigning the university committed to divesting the £18 million of assets which it held in the fossil fuel industry, making it the first in the UK to do so. In the months preceding Glasgow’s decision, SOAS had frozen all of its fossil fuel investments, and eventually divested its £1.5 million six months later making it the first fossil-free university in London. This rapid mobilisation of students to call for divestment would be very familiar to students of previous generations. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the UK’s campuses were awash with protests against the apartheid government of South Africa where segregation of black and white citizens was enforced at every level of life by the state. In response, the National Union of Students, supported by individual unions, called for a systematic divestment from the South African economy.
In the UK, there were obvious targets for the campaign and the NUS concentrated on Barclays Bank. To begin with, students divested at a personal level, moving their bank accounts and boycotting Barclays. In the first two years of the campaign, Barclays lost 10% of its market share in student accounts, a product seriously valued by retail bankers. Over the next few years Barclays would gradually divest from specific projects in South Africa which had been repeatedly targeted by campaigners in the UK and the U.S.
When Barclays eventually sold their South African division in 1986, its chairman Sir Timothy Bevan admitted that “world opinion counts. It affects commerce, and world opinion has changed a lot this year”. Barclays had pulled £200 million from South Africa, and became the first of many British companies to divest from the South African economy, although many around the world, especially in the U.S. had already done so. Financial markets welcomed the change of direction, seen by this point as inevitable for any public company with significant positions in South Africa, and Barclays’ share price enjoyed a modest increase following the announcement.
The global divestment movement against apartheid was certainly significant in placing the political pressure on the South African government which eventually pushed them into negotiations in the early 1990s. In this way, divestment had achieved meaningful political change and the campaign is a testament to the strength of student activism here in the UK.
While the current divestment movement has serious momentum at present, campus campaigns in the UK face significant challenges. Most of our universities not only hold investments in the fossil fuel industry through their endowments but also receive funding directly from the industry through individual departments. The fossil fuel industry relies on universities to provide large amounts of intellectual and human capital through each new cohort of graduates, as well as the research needed to extract and process fossil fuels in ever-more difficult and harmful ways.
Activists have met these challenges head on and a variety of tactics have been employed in campaigns across the UK so far. The University of Edinburgh agreed to a partial divestment in 2016, moving its money out of three companies with activities in coal and tar sands oil, considered to be the most harmful of fossil fuel deposits. Even this partial decision was only taken after a 10-day occupation of Edinburgh’s finance offices by a group of 20 students. A year later, disappointed in the university's aversion to a full divestment, a larger group went into an overnight occupation of the university quad. A small group of students were singled out for disciplinary action and the occupation was cut short, but the Edinburgh campaign continues in earnest.
A similar position was taken in 2015 at Oxford, who hold the second largest endowment in the UK. The university stopped short of full divestment but made a commitment to divest from coal and tar sands. In response, 70 prominent alumni handed back their degrees and the fossil free campaign continues towards fulls divestment. In late 2015, Warwick agreed to a full divestment in only one year. This was followed by divestment announcements from UAL, Surrey, Oxford Brookes and Sheffield. The following year, full commitments were made by Queen Mary, St. Andrews and Bristol while partial commitments came from Southampton, Newcastle and Cambridge.
Here in London, Imperial is quickly being left to play catch-up up with our neighbours. At the London School of Economics a year-long student campaign led to a full divestment commitment in 2015. Alongside all fossil fuels, LSE also agreed to divest from armaments firms. At King’s College, the university idled on its previous commitments to divest until a small group of students rapidly amplified pressure on the university earlier this year. The intense campaign culminated in one PhD student, Roger Hallam, undergoing a hunger strike. Roger’s enormous personal commitment didn’t go unnoticed and after 14 days the university reaffirmed its commitment and agreed to a full divestment within five years.
The momentum in the UK for divestment is clearly proceeding in one direction: a situation where our universities, some of the most respected institutions in the world, come together to take a coherent and constructive stand against the environmental destruction perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry. With 13 of its 24 members holding some commitment, divestment is becoming the norm within the Russell Group, as well as in London where eight major universities in the capital have already committed. For Imperial to maintain its well-deserved reputation as an institution tackling global challenges, fossil fuel divestment must be a question of 'when' rather than 'if'.