Student campaigners have welcomed the university-commissioned report but criticised ‘green subsidiaries loophole’.
In the latest development in the Fossil Free Research movement, a new Cambridge University report published on Tuesday found that “it is difficult to find the logic behind the decision to continue to accept funding from fossil fuel funding sources.”
The report was led by Nigel Topping, a member of the Climate Change Committee and former UN Climate Change High Level Champion for COP26, and was commissioned by the University after it failed to authorise a democratic vote of academics on fossil fuel funding last October.
According to the University of Cambridge, the purpose of the study was to “analyse the likely impact of the proposals [calling for an end to all sponsorship and collaboration with companies involved in the fossil fuel industry] on the University’s research and teaching activities and on its ability to pursue its mission”.
At an average of £3.3 million per year over the last 6 years, fossil fuel funding amounts to 0.4% of research and philanthropic funding and 0.1% of the University’s total income. Managing this “small amount of controversial funding”, Topping concludes, is a waste of valuable resources that could be better spent on a dedicated fundraising effort to raise amounts “orders of magnitude” higher.
Professor Jason Scott-Warren, who initiated the original call for a ballot on fossil fuel ties and is a member of the University Council, said: “The report is a scathing indictment of the University’s history of taking fossil fuel funding, which has helped to legitimise destructive corporations and has cast doubt on our seriousness in tackling the climate crisis.”
A major concern raised by the report is a rating system employed by the University’s Committee on Benefactions and External and Legal Affairs (CBELA), which scrutinises engagements between the University and external parties in order to assess any potential reputational risk. The traffic-light system, which was introduced in 2018, has rated fossil fuel giants BP and Shell as ‘amber’ — acceptable to work with — as opposed to ‘red’. This is in spite of the fact that they have no “short-term targets, [capital expenditure] plans, or policy engagement which are aligned with [net zero by 2050].”
The report recommends that the CBELA process be “significantly tightened up” and simplified to ensure clarity and transparency, noting that “transparency is key to trust”.
The Grace on Fossil Fuel Industry Ties, as the report is officially known, comes after years of mounting pressure as part of the international Fossil Free Research campaign. Specifically, the Cambridge Climate Justice (CCJ) organisation has led actions including disrupting a closed door meeting promoting fossil fuel funding for climate research, occupying the (since renamed) BP Institute and submitting evidence to Topping for his report.
CCJ organiser, Cambridge student and The Climate contributor Vedika Mandapati said the report represented a vindication of the group’s campaigning, stating: “What this report is saying should have been obvious to the University a long time ago — its responsibility to act and its reputation as a world leader on the climate crisis are being undermined by their ties to oil money. We urge the University Council to implement a ban on Big Oil funding immediately.”
Although the report has been welcomed by students, Mandapti said there was disappointment over the inclusion of a recommendation to continue to allow funding from subsidiaries of fossil fuel companies purporting to focus on clean technology.
“We welcome this report’s definitive call to action,” CCJ campaigner, Natural Sciences student, and Fossil Free Research steering committee member Sam Gee explained, “but recommending acceptance of money from green subsidiaries of fossil fuel companies, which would be assessed on a case-by-case basis, risks continuing to allow non-Paris aligned corporations to greenwash their reputation, while they perpetrate violence around the world.”
Campaigners also highlighted the disconnection between CBELA ratings and university action, pointing to the presence of oilfield services provider SLB (Schlumberger) on campus — see Schlumberger Gould Research Center (formerly Schlumberger Cambridge Research Center) — despite the company’s red rating.
In response to the report, the University Council has set up a working group with two aims: first, to examine the report’s four recommendations and consider whether and how they might be implemented; and second, to propose a format for further consultation, with a view to reaching a conclusion by the end of this year.
Stressing the need for the report’s acceptance, the President (Undergraduate) of Cambridge Student’s Union, Fergus Kirman, said: “Students are clear, the science is clear, and now this independent report is clear: the University must act. We welcome these recommendations, and hope that the University moves quickly to refuse funding from all fossil fuel companies.”