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expert reaction to the University of Glasgow’s decision to divest from fossil fuels

The University of Glasgow has announced that it will divest over the next decade from companies producing fossil fuels.

 

Prof Paul Younger, Rankine Chair of Engineering, Professor of Energy Engineering at the University of Glasgow, said:

“I am one of a number of senior academics at the University of Glasgow who are utterly dismayed by, and vehemently opposed to, the decision of our University Court to divest from fossil fuels. Had we not previously made clear our arguments on this point one could just say this is a triumph of well-meaning naivety – but as we had made our arguments abundantly clear, we believe it is better to characterise this as an instance of collective intellectual dishonesty.

“The first point to make it that, unlike tobacco or apartheid, ‘fossil fuels’ are not some unmitigated evil from which no conceivable benefit to society (or indeed the environment) has been or ever can be derived. They therefore make a poor target for moral absolutism, of the type we wholeheartedly supported in the case of tobacco and apartheid.

“On the wider issues, I reproduce below the text of the view of the School of Engineering, which was adopted as the position of the entire College of Science and Engineering on this topic, as drafted on 11th July 2014:

“The School of Engineering considers the proposal to divest from fossil fuel companies to be well-meaning but ultimately misguided because:

(i)  For the predominant forms of energy use (i.e. heat and transport fuels) there are no viable alternatives to fossil fuels yet available at scale. Until that changes, it is imperative that the academic sector engage with the fossil fuel sector to make ongoing use of these fuels as sustainable as possible.

(ii) The skills and facilities of the hydrocarbons sector are indispensable to the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS), without which, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there is no realistic chance of the world reaching decarbonisation targets in time. The School is actively engaged in research on this topic.

(iii) CCS is not just about improving the environmental performance of fossil fuel use: if applied to sustainably-produced biofuels it offers one of the few hopes of actively stripping greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The School is in the forefront of work on bioenergy, for both combined heat and power and transport fuel applications.

(iv)  Fossil fuels are not just an energy issue:

a.       the vast bulk of food consumed in Europe today is produced using fertilisers made using fossil fuels, and again no alternative is available at scale to replace this for the foreseeable future.

b.      the chemical and process industries are overwhelmingly based on the use of synthesis gas produced from fossil fuels. This produces many of the pharmaceuticals upon which modern society relies, as well as the vast array of synthetic materials (i.e. ‘plastics’), many of which lock-up carbon in the long-term, rather than releasing it to the atmosphere.

The School is involved in research on improving the sustainability of synthesis gas production from fossil and renewable resources.

“A decision to divest from fossil fuels would jeopardise the University’s credibility in working in all of these areas, as it would suggest we are unaware of the context in which our research takes place. This would fatally undermine our pathways to impact in many areas. We believe that the issue of carbon emissions is far too complex and far too important to be amenable to simple gesture politics. After all, the University sees no potential for abandoning gas as its principal source of heating for the next few decades, which is why our new CHP system will be gas-fired (albeit designed to incorporate renewable sources of heat as these become available in future). Why would we publicly posture as pretending we believe that immediate abandonment of fossil fuels is achievable? That would be intellectual dishonesty on a grand scale.

“It is ethically repugnant to us to heap moral opprobrium on one of Scotland’s only export earners (our oil sector) while expecting the tax revenues from the same to pay for free university education for all who make the grade – an arrangement that was widely lionized by many of the same students in the recent referendum debate.

“We can only hope and trust that those academic members of Court who voted to signal the University’s moral abhorrence of fossil fuels have the moral integrity today to turn off the radiators in their offices (they are entirely fossil-fuelled) and only to use their computers and room lighting for the one-third of the time that electricity in Scotland is provided for by fossil-fuels (or, if they are also abhor nuclear power, to switch off for the requisite 68.9% of the time that we can’t rely on hydropower or wind).”

 

Dr Hugh Hunt, Senior Lecturer at the University of Cambridge, said:

“Withdrawing ‘£18m of investments over the next decade’ is a great step – but the timescale is way too short.  CO2 emissions need to drop like a stone for the worst climate change scenarios to be avoided.

 

Declared interests

Prof Younger:

“I am a Non-Executive Director of a university start-up company (Five-Quarter) that is attempting to pioneer a form of underground coal gasification coupled to carbon capture and storage. The company is not yet operational and I receive no fees from it, but it sprang out of my research and publications.

“Apart from that, I am a Co-Investigator on the Scottish Combustion and Gasification Network, which is funded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Universities of Scotland and EPSRC and which is trying to improve the efficiency of such processes for both fossil fuels and biomass.  It does not have any industry funding, but we do interact with the likes of Scottish Power at Longannet power station (coal-fired).”

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