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December 1, 2016

UK Divestment Claims Based on Shaky, Often Non-Existent, Data

Divestment activists claim victory while reporting only a quarter of U.K. schools are on track to meet their actual carbon reduction targets by 2020.

As fossil fuel divestment activists run into a series of setbacks in the United States, activists have tried to paint a picture of momentum in the United Kingdom.  The activist organization People & Planet, a UK-based group focused on divestment and related causes, released a new report last week claiming that a quarter of UK universities have now divested.  According to the announcement, “Fossil Free has been named the fastest growing divestment movement in history; now we have the data to back that up.” Yet even a quick look at the announcement reveals that divestment activists are relying on fake decisions to bolster their numbers, an old tactic we’ve seen time and again. (It’s worth noting that People & Planet lists Fossil Free, the brainchild of 350.org’s Bill McKibben, as one of their “projects.”)

This time, People & Planet argue that 16 new UK universities have committed to divest, following their previous announcement in October that 26 UK schools had already divested. Of that 26, only five universities were on the record as committed to full divestment. The remaining were partial acts–most merely giving up coal and oil sands holdings. Meanwhile many who made such announcements had no holdings to begin with. Not exactly a divisive win for the campaign.

The Univ. of Southampton, for instance, announced a new fund manager with ESG screenings to limit exposure to fossil fuels but refused to offer The Independent additional details. The Univ. of Warwick pledged to “review the availability of fossil-free funds and, if available, use them in the future,” but that there were currently no index-related funds available to UK investors that enable specific exclusion of fossil fuel companies. The school also stated while it would review the availability of these funds in the future, “To replicate such funds with exclusions manually would be so prohibitively expensive that it would defeat the purpose of investing at all.” Not exactly shining examples of divestment, yet both featured on the People & Planet’s campaign list.

Two of the UK’s most prestigious and well-known schools, Oxford and Cambridge University, have also fallen into empty divestment gestures. As Bloomberg reports:

 “Oxford University, calling itself ‘a world leader in the battle against climate change,’ said in May it would avoid direct investments in coal and oil-sands companies in its $2.6 billion endowment. The British university, in fact, held none, it said.” (emphasis added)

Even The Guardian admits that Cambridge, which rejected larger fossil fuel divestment in favor of no future investments in coal and oil sands, “currently has no direct holdings in either, and only negligible holdings in coal by investments managed externally.”

Many of the “partial” divestments People & Planet feature were not direct decisions made by the universities, but rather the result of a policy instituted by their investment manager CCLA, which states it “does not invest in any company that is primarily focused on coal or tar sands production.” This includes Birmingham City University, Cranfield University, De Montfort University, Heriot-Watt University, University of Hertfordshire, and the University of Portsmouth – all schools that have funds managed through CCLA.

That brings us to this new announcement that 16 additional schools have divested, which again leaves a lot of questions to be answered. The University of Sussex, for instance, made the list due to its call for a reduction and potential future elimination of fossil fuels, since CCLA manages its endowment.  The University of Gloucestershire says it is “creating a low-carbon budget” while Goldsmiths University of London, Aston University, and University of Greenwich are all “divesting” only because of CCLA’s commitment to reduce its coal and oil sands holdings. Are these really divestment wins?

Perhaps most important of all, People & Planet’s own report highlighting these divestment efforts notes that many schools are falling behind in their actual efforts to commit to sustainability. As The Guardian reports:

Only a quarter are on track to meet their carbon reduction targets by 2020. Teams leading environmental initiatives are being cut and sustainability strategies have not been renewed, according to the results of the 2016 People & Planet University League, published on Tuesday.”

This poor performance begs the question: why are universities and activist organizations focused on pushing divestment – an ineffective and costly measure – when they should be focused on tangible results and impacts that real sustainability initiatives can provide?

As many academics have highlighted, divestment has no tangible impact on the environment. Robert Stavins of Harvard University, for example, warns that fossil-fuel divestment “would hurt, not help efforts to address global climate change.” Software billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates calls divestment a “false solution” that uses up “idealism and energy on something that won’t emit less carbon.”

Perhaps that is why other UK schools like Bristol University, with an endowment of £61.2 million, and Leeds University, with an endowment of £66.7 million, have rejected divestment to date. As People & Planet highlight themselves, it is time to focus on real sustainability – not empty gestures like divestment.