The divestment campaigners at Imperial are on the move again. This week saw them taking to campus with various events and actions. On Wednesday students dropped a banner off the main union building in Beit Quad. The banner which wrote out in large black and orange letters “IMPERIAL DIVEST NOW!” was taken down within hours. The Union has come out in support of student-led campaigns but it remains unclear whether Union Staff were involved in the taking down of the banner On Thursday, a chalk mural sprang up on the paved floor in front of Queen’s Tower. Again, security acted fast and put a halt to the protest, but not before the realisation of a large four by two metre wide drawing. In response, security personnel tried taking down participants’ College ID numbers. When asked what the problem was one member of security said it had nothing to do with the content but rather the fact that someone would have to be called in to wash the mural away.
Ironically, in 2014 Imperial asked students to create a massive chalk mural along Imperial College Road for Imperial Festival. Content or removal didn’t seem to be a major concern at the time. In fact, the mural fell victim to the unpredictably wet summer weather and was washed away halfway through the festival.
Campaigners think Imperial’s investments don’t reflect its aims as an institution, namely the use of science to solve global challenges. “The fossil fuel industry’s continued exploration is incompatible with our future and undermines the research done here on low carbon technologies and climate change,” says Naomi Pratt, one of the campaigners.
Though both actions were quickly suppressed and it’s unclear how many students noticed them, those who did felt divestment was an important issue to discuss. “I’m fairly on board with it”, said Laurence Copson, a Climate Change, Management and Finance student who happened to be at the Union with his cohort during the banner drop. “I’d just do it from a financial perspective. I’d just make an economic argument for why you’d choose energy efficiency and alternative energy over oil and gas”.
For the first time in 2015, green energy accounted for more than half of new electricity capacity with the IEA predicting a 42% growth of renewable energy capacity by 2021. Then, last year, green energy development overtook the fossil fuel sector. In the US alone 22GW worth of green energy capacity or an equivalent of eleven large hydroelectric dams were added to the energy infrastructure. So does that mean Imperial’s money-making instincts might lead it to divest from Big Oil? James Kennedy, another Climate Change student, doesn’t seem convinced. “When you think about Imperial and how much money the chemical engineering department for example must take from big oil companies and how that provides huge funds for research at our university, this is probably going to be difficult.”
“It’s going to be the last nut to crack in term of universities. It’s got to be the most oil-and-gas-focused university in the country” says Charlie Cook, another member of the cohort. Would divesting even matter though? According to a 2016 Freedom of Information request Imperial has £220 million in its endowment fund. This includes shares in oil giants such as Exxon (£0.52 million), Cairn Energy (£0.1 million), Shell (£0.86 million) and Statoil (£1.05 million) as well as companies which provide technological services to Big Oil such as Emerson (£0.63 million), Mitsubishi (£0.88 million), Petrofac (£0.75 million) and Schlumberger (£0.92 million). These funds are insignificant in comparison to the human capital Imperial annually invests in the oil and gas industry.
Every year Imperial sends over 800 students into oil and gas or mining. But what if it didn’t? “That would be a far greater statement – if they were going to say OK we’re going to change the focus of the majority of our courses so that now we’re trying to train people for, say clean energy rather than oil and gas,” says Cook.
In fact divesting from fossil fuels while continuing to funnel so much talent into the industry would be hollow at best if not outright hypocrisy. But soon it might be the only option if we want to remain cutting edge and market our employability. In Europe coal is rapidly being phased out, with companies such as Drax Group Plc, Steag GmbH to Uniper SE closing and converting generators all over the continent. In the US too, solar alone currently employs more people than coal, oil and gas combined, despite Trump’s apparent love for the black stuff.
How long will it make sense for Imperial to keep pushing its students into a field that might not exist for much longer?
“We recognise that fossil fuels contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and we work to mitigate their impact while seeking viable alternative sources of energy,” said an Imperial spokesperson in response to the campaign. “We steward our endowment gifts carefully and believe that we can have the greatest impact on climate change by optimising these resources to invest in research and education.” Probably indefinitely.