// text size limiter //Blur //Big Blur // can delete?
Zoom in
student activism
Zoom Out
why it matters
Zero in
solutions & actions

fossil free students

The Youth Divests

a video by people&planet
country. uk
run time. min

"a short video that communicates
the passion behind the uk divestment movement."
ally lantz, climate crisis film festival

Stories from
the Ground

The fossil fuel divestment movement is sweeping through UK universities and all over the world. This inspiring journey started from small groups of student activists and grew into an international movement that coordinates large-scale actions and engages in discussions with university decision makers.

The results are remarkable, with 87 out of 160 UK universities making a commitment to divest from fossil fuels.

Fossil free students protesting against an unjust systemPeople gathered for a protest against the use of fossil fuels as these damage the environment

A Student’s Journey into Activism

When we look back at the 2010s and the generation it fostered, the exponential growth of youth-led social and environmental justice movements will undoubtedly be one of the brightest memories of the era. Young people, empowered and emboldened by the potential of online networks to educate and organise, are challenging a wide variety of powerful actors in society offering alternative visions for a better future.

A systemic understanding of the intersection between social, economic and environmental issues is at the core of these youth movements. The newfound recognition of the need to think about singular issues as part of a broader, connected justice movement has dramatically increased engagement on a range of issues, allowing formerly atomised, single-issue causes to understand themselves as inseparable from a broader justice movement. The student divestment movement is a perfect example of a youth-led coordinated push starting from the grassroots to take control of where money goes, ensuring that it isn’t used to cause social or environmental harm.

“After sending a letter about reducing the amount of meat served by the cafeteria gained concrete results relatively quickly and easily, I realised students could have a real impact on shaping the university's operations and practices”
Zak coleman, cambridge su president elect

For Zak, Cambridge's systemic issues were demonstrated when he attended Cambridge’s student-led ‘Decolonise, Disarm, Divest’ march, an event that showed the growth of the intersectional climate movement at the university in recent years. He particularly remembers a speech read at the protest about the Ogoni people, an indigenous community whose lands have been destroyed and made infertile by 63 years of oil digging by Shell — a company that Cambridge still accepts donations from. Between 1976 and 1991, there were reportedly 2,976 oil spills and about 2.1 million barrels worth of oil spilt onto Ogoniland soils - making up nearly 40% of the total oil spills of the Royal Dutch/Shell company worldwide. For Zak, the experience crystallised the need for Cambridge’s environmental movement to embody intersectional justice issues in their divestment strategy.

Cambridge University students protesting against arms and fossil fuels
Cambridge University students marched in November 2018 demanding the university divest from arms and fossil fuel.
man standing close to a fire and showing the damage that oil spills made to a Nigerian delta
oil spills have left hazardous conditions in the niger delta
Zak Coleman, Cambridge SU President
Zak coleman, cambridge su president

An awareness of intersecting justice struggles brought the historical sources of Cambridge’s wealth into a stark light. A college-led assessment of Jesus College’s links to the slave trade found that one of their historically celebrated donors, Tobias Rustat, had been financially benefitting from involvement in the Royal African Company, a slave trading company. Zak and other climate justice campaigners argue that there is a moral imperative to adopt a reparative justice approach to the College’s endowment in light of the money the college has gained from slavery — which has multiplied exponentially and now fattens the college’s endowment. Divesting from fossil fuel companies, whose effects on the climate disproportionately impact nations that have been oppressed by colonialism and the slave trade, represents an important first step in repairing the damage done by Cambridge throughout its history.

Desperate for a way to connect with other activists and build on the momentum of the march, Zak joined Cambridge Zero Carbon Society, an organisation that in 2020, after years of campaigning, finally achieved its goal of getting the University of Cambridge to commit to remove all direct and indirect investments in the fossil fuel industry from its £3.5bn endowment by 2030. Their meetings introduced the divide between those who wanted half-measures designed to reduce an individual’s consumption - such as devices to help students monitor their personal electricity use - and those who pushed for more effective, systemic changes to the university’s operating practices. It was essential to convince those who wanted to tinker around the edges, that what was needed was a climate justice based reorganisation of the university’s structures and processes.

people gathered in the streets and calling for a transition to a just system and zero emissions
Cambridge zero carbon society's colourful march calling for a Just transition with divestment and net zero on the agenda

To become more involved he took up the role of Jesus College Green Officer - a multipurpose role created to represent students’ green concerns and handle a variety of green issues from providing compost bins for students to lobbying for net zero targets and divestment. The post brought him into the bureaucratic world of committee meetings helping him understand the importance of a coordinated climate movement - one that combines public actions and protests with negotiating at the table with the key decision makers.

students protesting for climate justice and full divestment by 2022 at Jesus College
College students calling for climate justice while wearing bloody horse masks
The Jesus College Climate Justice Campaign's protest called on the college to divest from fossil fuels and reach net zero targets

Coordinating a Divestment Campaign

Whilst Green Officer, he strategically coordinated appeals to put divestment and net zero targets on the agenda at council meetings with protests to show public support for his proposals and put pressure on the decision makers to act.

In a particularly eye-catching protest, Zak helped organise an action where protestors dressed in bloodied horse masks next to Jesus College’s iconic horse statue. The protest involved a dramatic ‘die-in’ where protestors lay prone on the grassy quad, as the leaders gave speeches calling out Jesus College’s ecologically damaging activities. Zak worked with local newspapers beforehand to ensure the protest was covered in the press and followed up with a petition signed by 300 students and staff, which was ceremonially presented to the members of the college council in the bloody horse masks.

To keep up the pressure and force more transparency around the college’s investments they used freedom of information act requests — a formal request procedure that anyone can make to create a public “right of access” to information withheld by institutions — initiated by the Zero Carbon Society to launch in-depth investigations into the college finances. They then compiled a 152-page report on Jesus College’s investments in exploitative and environmentally destructive businesses. The report reveals the grand total currently invested directly into fossil fuels — £807,705.77. The total amount invested into other major drivers of climate breakdown and perpetrators of social harms? A staggering £4.3 million.

The report analyses fund managers — investment management corporations that invest on the college’s behalf — and works out what proportion of their endowment goes towards funding destructive practices. Fund managers have huge power over the investment of global assets and, given that asset management is a $100trn dollar industry, that power is something the people need to reclaim. Those present at a asset manager’s shareholder meetings can vote for motions promoting good environmental practice in the management of those assets. Cazenove Capital, the fund manager Jesus College uses for £46m of its investments, is owned by Schroders — a bigger investment fund that manages £509.5bn worth of assets. Despite having a good record in other areas, Schroders ranks low in Shareaction’s report on ethical asset management voting records, voting against nearly 40% of positive resolutions on issues of climate change and social justice - ranking 27th out of 60 large fund managers that were surveyed. The next frontier for Cambridge’s climate justice movement is likely to be focused around campaigns to switch to fund managers that have higher ethical standards for investments.

Zak has had some big successes in his time as Green Officer. Despite Cambridge University only guaranteeing net zero by 2048, Zak pushed hard for a 2030 net zero target for Jesus College. After coming up against skepticism about the feasibility and need for a 2030 net zero target, he got the environmental committee to commission an in-depth, externally moderated review of whether the 2030 target was achievable. After winning over environmental committee members, he is confident Jesus College is going to commit to the 2030 net zero target.

Cambridge committing to these more ambitious climate goals is an essential part of climate justice as it recognises the proportion of historical emissions produced by high emitting institutions like Cambridge and acknowledges their responsibility to stop emitting much faster than less wealthy institutions with far lower historic emissions to their name. Zak has just won the election to become Cambridge University student union president on an ambitious green platform that promises to fight for full fossil fuel divestment across all colleges, achieve net zero by 2030, end research and sponsorship ties to destructive industries and divest from banks that are funding the climate crisis. He’s determined to be a force for students’ green interests, one that helps build divestment movements across the university whilst holding all the individual colleges to account on their climate action policies.

zoom in:

student activism

click to hide
click to expand

the dots

see which uk universities have divested and which ones still have a lot of work to do

how’s your
university doing?

Why Divesting Matters

In recent history, divestment has been used in many contexts - on a national level in protest against the apartheid regime in 1980s South Africa, and on the corporate level to divert investments away from the tobacco industry. Though the part that divestment played in bringing down the apartheid regime is difficult to quantify, the fact remains that it was an important mechanisation of civil unrest in the language of finance. As they say, money talks. And so the power of divestment lies in cultivating a culture of socially responsible investment, signalling large scale changes in public attitudes and, when successful, forcing negative actors to change their practices.

Detecting and halting direct investments is relatively straightforward compared to indirect investments. Direct investments are often plain to see, whereas indirect investments can be obscured by many layers of complex financial instruments or opaque reporting by asset managers.

Despite its impact on a social level, divestment is rarely critically harmful to the massive corporations that it targets. Big names like BP or Shell can always find other companies willing to buy up their stocks when an institution like Jesus College withdraws its investments. The structural value of divestment campaigns is their ability to dent a company’s social license and damage its reputation to the point that it is forced to change its harmful practices.

The moral case for divestment is clear. But as society starts moving away from fossil fuels, divestment becomes a financial imperative as well. Any business with robust, future-proofed risk assessments knows that climate change is the number one threat to supply chains and demand in the future. Climate change forces businesses to eschew short term mindsets and focus on how their business interacts with and relies on global systems and the environment.

Many sources, such as the University of Gronigen’s report on The Financial Impact of Divestment from Fossil Fuels, show that potential losses made by companies and institutions due to divestment can be easily avoided with a diversification of investment portfolios to include profitable new alternatives. In addition, positive projections on the profitability of fossil fuel investments do not account for the (now almost inevitable) green transition, which will most likely subsidise green industry to historically unprecedented levels.

$14.56 trillion
DIVESTING to date (april 2021)
Faith-based Organization — 34%
Educational Institution — 15%
Philanthropic Foundation — 15%
Government — 12%
Pension fund — 12%
For Profit Corporation — 5%
NGO — 4%
Healthcare Institution — 1%
stats & graphics from gofossilfree.org

go to their website for up-to-date numbers and the full list of institutions and companies that have committed to divestment gofossilfree.org/divestment/commitments/

The Global Movement

Cambridge’s divestment campaign is a high profile one because Cambridge has the largest endowment of any university in Europe - a massive £6.3bn. Whilst richer universities with large investment portfolios, like Oxford, Cambridge and the Russell group universities, are symbolically and materially important, the divestment movement has grown in student institutions all across the world. Campaigns have been celebrating victories from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Kenya to the University of British Colombia in Canada.  

Organisations like 350.org have been working on divestment since 2012, securing fossil free pledges amounting to over $1.5 trillion in assets — including high profile organisations such as Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, the Episcopal church and the Church of England.

It’s important to remember that divestment campaigns are not the end goal — they are the first step in creating a culture of anti-fossil fuel sentiment which can build larger public movements to ban fossil fuel subsidies, implement carbon taxes and reform society in a greener image. The socially responsible investment (SRI) movement, which shares the divestment campaign’s mission to bring ethics into investment, aims to bring this sentiment to investing. Once a company divests, there are big troughs of capital swilling around, just waiting to be reinvested into exciting new projects.

The SRI movement signals a change in the culture of investment: a desire to have an impact on important social or environmental issues without excluding ventures because they don’t make enough profit in the short term. These green ventures can include ambitious projects like funding meat alternative products to help reduce global meat consumption or investing in community-owned green energy projects to help raise living standards at home and abroad. It is clear that it is not enough to simply divest from negative impact industries like fossil fuels. We must start investing in positive social and environmental enterprises now and leverage the power of finance to accelerate the green transition.

Image showing the level of divestment across various cities, universities and businesses.
data from fossilfree.org

zoom out:

why it matters

click to hide
click to expand

+ actions

how do we untangle this mess?

zero in:

solutions & actions

click to hide
click to expand

more stories like this