"a short video that communicates
the passion behind the uk divestment movement."
ally lantz, climate crisis film festival
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Universities funnel huge amounts of money through fund managers. Big fund managers like BlackRock have immense power as managers of assets totalling $9trn dollars — more than the GDP of Germany and Japan combined. They have the power to use that money for good but instead they continue to hold investments in fossil fuel companies and have only voted for 12% of stakeholder resolutions to increase environmental and social standards — 4th worst of the 60 surveyed by Shareaction. We must shift assets away from negative impact fund managers and over to positive fund managers who have consistently good voting records on their investments.
Divestment can only go so far. Reinvestment is where we start to really move the needle. Gold Standard offers an extensive list of green bonds from renewable energy and waste management to land use and water benefits. Design a green investment portfolio to prove that your university’s reinvestment strategy can be as profitable as it is impactful.
The Rainforest Action Network’s report on how banks finance fossil fuels found that in the 5 years since the Paris Agreement, the world’s 60 biggest banks have financed fossil fuels to the tune of $3.8 trillion. Environmentally secure banking options, such as Triodos, offer alternative ways for a university’s investments to be managed. Campaign for your university to start banking ethically to ensure their money is used for social and environmental good.
Learn more about how universities can reinvest money into sustainable and beneficial causes on Invest for Change
Read Divest Invest’s guide for institutional investors on how to integrate climate into your investments
Read Zak’s report into Jesus College’s fossil fuel investments
Make a freedom of information act request to ensure your campaign knows the facts and figures around your university’s investments. Use What Do They Know’s website to search for previous requests and put pressure on your university to do the right thing.
Sign up for Divest Ed’s training course to equip student organisers with the analysis, strategy, and skills that they can use in their activism on campus and throughout the rest of their lives in the movement. Learn about Mentorship and Leadership Development (one-on-one mentorship, fellowship program for cohort learning, help students identify their goals and challenge areas, guide them to mentor others in their campaign), Campaign Coaching (offering resources to campaigns, having calls, help campaigns identify goals and develop strategies) and Connecting Campaigns to a Movement (connect campaigns to each other, build a network, connect campaigns)
Follow one or more colleges or Universities on social media and ask them why they haven't divested yet. You can comment on their own posts or tag them in your own. You can find most of Cambridge's Twitter and Instagram handles here.
Alumni are often big contributors to university endowments. Organise a series of actions and recruitment at alumni events. Explain that the institution they love is burning its own future and demand that their donations are used for ethically good causes. Create an email template for alumni to send to their old university saying that they will no longer donate or engage in the alumni network unless they withdraw fossil fuel investments.
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