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expert reaction to the University of Edinburgh’s announcement on fossil fuel investment policy

Following a consultation with its staff and students, the University of Edinburgh has announced changes to its policy on fossil fuel investment with the aim of promoting responsible investment.


Prof. Paul Younger, Rankine Chair of Engineering and Professor of Energy Engineering, University of Glasgow, said:

“Having been plunged involuntarily into the midst of the fossil fuel divestment debate when my own institution ploughed ahead with a simplistic commitment to divest from fossil fuels, as if all are equally damaging to the climate and as if simple alternatives exist for all their uses, it is refreshing to see the University of Edinburgh propose a policy that is consistent both with ethical principles and with what is technically feasible. Their stance is actually very similar to that adopted by the Church of England. I applaud both institutions for taking the time to probe the science and engineering constraints on the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. No such precaution was taken by my own university, with the result that we are now mired in a needless debate, in which the desire to avoid losing face is poised to overrule the application of reason. Fossil fuels are not apartheid and not tobacco: in those cases, there were no ethical downsides to urging divestment, so a simple binary choice existed. No such binary simplicity attends fossil fuel use. Rather, the myriad uses to which modern society puts fossil fuels yield many major benefits, not least to the poor. An immediate cessation of all fossil fuel use would plunge hundreds of millions of people in Asia, Africa and Latin America back into severe poverty, joining their compatriots who have yet to escape it. Immediate cessation of all fossil fuel use would make us incapable of feeding the 7 billion humans already with us, let alone the 10 billion we anticipate will be here by 2050. Here in the UK, it would seriously destabilise energy supplies, leading to an acute increase in fuel poverty and a sharp rise in deaths by hypothermia each winter.

“No-one I work with doubts the sincerity of the intentions of those who call for a total and immediate end of all fossil fuel use: we share the desire to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions. Yet equally, none of the many scientists and engineers I know who are actually familiar with the capabilities of existing (or reasonably foreseeable) technologies in the electricity, heat, transport, building materials, pharmaceuticals, plastics and food production sectors doubts that we are still at least several decades away (and perhaps rather more) from having one-for-one replacements for fossil fuels in all of these spheres. To pretend otherwise, as my university did, might make you feel good, but is an abdication of academic responsibility. I am delighted to see that the University of Edinburgh is adopting a position that is consistent with the highest standards of intellectual rigour: it represents the state-of-the-art in what is technically achievable in a reasoned and constructive approach to engaging with the companies that produce and exploit fossil fuels at the behest of the wasteful society we have created, and in which we almost all indulge. Step one is to dramatically increase the efficiency fossil fuel use, so that the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per unit of fuel used drops sharply. Step two is to find technologies we have yet to imagine. So if you want a cause to campaign for that just might save us from climate chaos, then campaign for a wholesale diversion of R&D funding from weaponry to low-carbon technologies; we might then have some hope of coming up with new technologies, at scale and at affordable price, to an increasingly tight deadline.”


Dr Simon Lewis, Reader in Global Change Science, UCL, said:

“To accept the need to radically reduce emissions, but not to divest from companies that produce those emissions, is a total failure of logic. If robust engagement with the fossil fuel industry were being promoted after the first intergovernmental report on climate change in 1990 I would have fully supported it. But not now. There have been 25 years of engagement with fossil fuel companies and it has not worked.  It is not realistic to politely ask companies to end their core profitable business and expect them to agree and take action to end that core profitable business.

“If business-as-usual emissions continue, students at university today will live to see a planet transformed by climate change. The stance of Edinburgh University is a form of denial of the seriousness of the problems facing humanity from the actions of fossil fuel companies.”


Prof. Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate and Culture, King’s College London, said:

“There are many ways in which ‘people of conscience’ can and should tackle the injustices of climate change beyond divesting from all fossil fuel companies.  The University of Edinburgh have chosen a range of engagement principles which include, but are far from being limited to, highly selective divestment.  It is crucial for the politics of climate change that narrow campaigning groups do not claim a monopoly of the moral high ground; nor that all fossil fuel companies are castigated as ‘the enemy’.  As a wicked issue that defies a solution, the risks and injustices of climate change are better tackled through real-world pragmatism than through feel-good campaigning.”


Prof. Chris Rapley, Professor of Climate Science, UCL, said:

“Climate science shows the need for a massive, rapid, but managed transition from a carbon-intensive world economy to a carbon-light one. This will only be possible with a major, global surge of investment in ‘green’ technologies and infrastructure. So fossil fuel divestment should not be viewed as a means to ‘punish’ or ‘demonise’ fossil fuel companies upon whom we all currently rely for our wellbeing, but as a means to accelerate a necessary and inevitable transition as swiftly and calmly as possible.”


Prof. Andrew Watkinson, Professor of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, said:

“Boycotts and divestment may not change the world, but they clearly signal that change is wanted. All of those concerned with climate change know that business as usual is not an option.  I applaud those who question how their institutions operate and are pressing for change to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. There is obviously no simple solution to the problems we face and need to support a wide range of actions that may contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Doing nothing is not an option.”


Mr Howard Covington, former CEO of New Star Asset Management and Chairman of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences, said:

“To reduce the growing risk of economically damaging warming, fossil fuel use must go into permanent long-term decline within the foreseeable future. In their own interests, continuing shareholders should insist that any fossil fuel company they own presents them with a business plan that preserves value during this eventual managed decline. Obtaining the publication of such a plan would show clearly that they were taking their responsibilities as continuing shareholders seriously.”


Declared interests

Prof. Paul Younger: “I am an unpaid non-executive, founding director of a small start-up company (Five-Quarter Energy Holdings Ltd), spun out of Newcastle University where I used to work. The company is trying to make the case for a new zero-carbon process for obtaining gas from coals far beneath the seabed and re-injecting the CO2 into the same zones.”

No conflicts of interest to declare from Dr Simon Lewis, Prof. Mike Hulme, Prof. Chris Rapley, Prof. Andrew Watkinson and Mr Howard Covington.

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