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Image courtesy of Flickr user Joshua Poh

Time to disinvest?

Last month, Fossil Free Manchester (FFM), a protest group based in the University’s own students union, presented the Board of Governors with an open letter, signed by nearly 100 of the University’s academics, urging them to follow the lead of other universities such as Glasgow and Warwick, and divest from fossil fuels.

The letter to the Governors, which was signed by, among others, author Jeanette Winterson, professor of creative writing at UoM, and leading climate change academic Kevin Anderson, said:

“We believe this is a tremendous opportunity for the University of Manchester to demonstrate decisive and forward-thinking leadership on one of the most pressing global issues of our time… We hope you will give serious consideration to our students’ demands that the university commits to freezing new investment in fossil fuel companies and divesting within five years from the top 200 fossil fuel companies that control the majority of carbon reserves.”

The Board was also presented with a report outlining why the University should disinvest.

After some consideration, the Board decided to defer any decision pending a review of its whole investment portfolio, a move that has left some campaigners arguing the University is simply using delaying tactics.

“The board said a lot of positive things about the report but they said they want to have the report reviewed by the finance committee,” says FFM’s Naomi Wilkins. “They are doing a complete review of all their investments based on their policy of corporate responsibility rather than just divest from fossil fuels straight off (but)I’m concerned it’s just a way of stalling over the whole issue.”

FFM also hopes the University will switch some of its investment into sustainable technology. “People often say we can’t just completely stop getting electricity from fossil fuels and get all our electricity from renewable sources because it isn't developed enough yet,” says Wilkins. “The obvious response to that is if we were to invest in them more, then they’d be able to do more research and become more developed technologies.”

According to freedom of information (FOI) requests made by FFM, as of last April UoM’s investment portfolio contained 846,337 shares in fossil fuel companies, which amounted to over of £9.5 million. Six of these - Shell, BP, Glencore Xstrata, Tullow Oil and Rio Tinto – are among the largest fossil fuel companies in the world.

Alongside this, the FOIs showed that a further £29.5 million is invested in ten FTSE 100 fossil fuel companies through the university’s pension fund. Although the fund isn’t currently part of FFM’s campaign, it does mean that added together UoM’s total fossil fuel investment at the end of the last financial year stood at almost £40million.

One of FFM’s key arguments is that the University has its own 20/20 strategy, a set of goals which includes environmental sustainability, and that investment in fossil fuels is completely incompatible with this.

It’s an argument which has also been put forward by the wider disinvestment community too. “Unethical and untenable,” is how Academics Stand Against Poverty describe investment in fossil fuels that cause climate change when a university claims to be seeking to advance global development and health.

Disinvestment is a growing movement and FFM claim over 200 institutions globally, with a combined asset size of over $60 billion, have committed to divestment, including the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, the British Medical Association, and the Church of England.

Elsewhere the Guardian’s Keep it in the Ground campaign is urging the world’s two largest charitable funds, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, to withdraw their investments from fossil fuels.

If UoM choose to divest they will follow in the footsteps of Glasgow University, which became the first University in Europe to divest from fossil fuels last October, after a year of continued pressure from students and the Fossil Free national campaign. Warwick University has also followed suit, as has Stanford in America.

“We feel that divesting will remove their (businesses’) social licence which will stop them having such a say,” continues Wilkins. “Eventually it will force them to shift their business models away from fossil fuels or to leave space in the market for other companies (which offer an alternative).”

FFM are set to keep up the pressure while the University reviews its portfolio and Wilkins can see further campaigns in the city too. One possible target could be the Whitworth Gallery, she says, and the possibility of campaigns similar to those aimed at the Tate in London, which encourage them to no longer accept sponsorship from the likes of Shell and BP.

The Greater Manchester Pension Fund is also likely to come under greater scrutiny. The fund, which has assets of around £16 billion, is responsible for the pensions of council workers in the whole of Greater Manchester.

The fund publishes details of its holdings each year, with last year’s figures showing that in addition to investing £530 million, or 4.5% of the total fund, into Shell and BP, it also invested in three mining companies and Canadian Tar Sands, a business involved in one of the most controversial forms of extracting fossil fuels.

Darrell Beck, a spokesperson for the Fund, explained that issues relating to investing in companies that generate a significant proportion of their sales and profits from fossil fuels are exceptionally complex.

In the fund’s view, he said, applying ethical, environmental or any other non-commercial policy to the selection of investments is inconsistent with the Fund’s legal duties and its statutory responsibility to ensure proper diversification of investments. 

As a result the Fund has a general policy of not interfering in the day-to-day investment decisions of its fund managers and does not actively invest in or permanently disinvest from companies solely or largely for social, ethical or environmental reasons.

However, he does expect figures for the last financial year to show the amount of money invested in Shell and BP to be ‘significantly less than 4.5%’, although conceding that: “There are no plans to disinvest from companies such as BP and Shell in the medium term.”


Main image courtesy of Flickr user Joshua Poh published here under a Creative Commons Licence.