The SU and the path to Divestment

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The impact of Cambridge University’s landmark commitment to full divestment from fossil fuels by 2030 has already been felt on a local level. Just a day after the announcement, Christ’s College Council voted to follow the University in committing to full divestment within the same time frame. Totalling over £2m, this is the largest public commitment to full divestment by a Cambridge college to date. It sets an exciting precedent for other colleges to swiftly follow suit and provides a powerful platform for collegiate divestment campaigns to lobby those that have not yet made any meaningful commitment to divesting from the fossil fuel industry.


The University’s momentous commitment has undoubtedly marked a crucial tipping point, one which the Cambridge Students’ Union has long been working towards. The formerly separate unions, CUSU and the Graduate Union (GU), have both played a part in collaborating with dedicated student campaigners and supportive staff members to secure this result. There have been multiple motions in support of divestment passed through the Student Council over the past few years, with sabbatical officers mandated to work closely with Cambridge Zero Carbon in support of their campaign. Sabbs in recent years have used their positions on University Council and other committees to advocate in support of divestment and lobby crucial voters. 


Our Ethical Affairs (EA) Campaign has also played a key part in this victory. From lobbying councillors, to organising Green Week for the past two years, to organising the Divestment Conference attended by Stephen Toope, Emily Shuckburgh and other influential figures in the University, EA has stood at the heart of the SU’s campaign for Climate Justice in Cambridge. EA has demonstrated how powerful a coalition of student campaigners, SU volunteers and Sabbatical Officers can be in achieving previously unimaginable change in this University. 


Despite being a major victory for student and staff campaigners, there is broad acknowledgement from across the university community that divestment is just the beginning. On one hand, such a significant divestment commitment does contribute to the erosion of fossil fuel companies’ social license to operate. However, meaningful climate action must be underpinned by the recognition that the activities of these companies are detrimental not only to the environment but to the lives and livelihoods of people all over the globe, disproportionately those of frontline communities in the Global South. As such, Cambridge still has a way to go - its ties with fossil fuel companies extend far beyond merely financial investment, as Zero Carbon’s most recent report outlines, and continue to implicate the University in climate breakdown.


It is not just investments which bolster fossil fuel companies’ social license to operate. There are a variety of ways in which the industry is actively promoted and supported by the University, which include (but are by no means limited to) sponsorships, professorships and branded materials. Specific examples include:

  • Chemistry students being gifted lab coats with BP branding

  • Fossil fuel executives being given a prestigious platform at the Annual Shell Lecture

  • Academics being awarded BP and Shell professorships (of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering respectively)

  • ExxonMobil and BP sponsoring awards and prizes which are issued to students to encourage progression into graduate jobs related to the industry

This is a non-exhaustive list of the ways in which the University strongly reinforces fossil fuel hegemony, by preserving the visibility, influence and ubiquity of these damaging companies within powerful institutions.


Fossil fuel companies also continue to pollute knowledge production at the University, with Cambridge having received over £18m in research funding from the industry since 2001. Technology developed at Cambridge’s BP Institute has directly contributed to increased profits from fossil fuel extraction to the tune of between $300m-3bn per year. As long as the University continues to accept funding for research that facilitates the dangerous and morally bankrupt extractive practices of fossil fuel companies, its claimed commitments to sustainability and climate action are hollow. 


Cambridge is supposedly a leading institution on the global stage but its sustained ties to morally bankrupt industries greatly undermine its prestige. The education provided by the University must be liberated from the clutches of fossil fuel companies; Cambridge’s academic output should not in any way serve an industry that is knowingly driving our world to destruction. As an SU, we are committed to lobbying for a just University: ensuring that the principles of climate justice are placed at the heart of the institution is key to this. Building on the momentum of divestment will be crucial for campaigners and Students’ Union reps alike as we keep working towards a justice-oriented and socially responsible Cambridge.


Keen to get involved in climate justice organising at Cambridge? 


You can find the SU Ethical Affairs Campaign on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for more information about their meetings and activities. If you’re looking to set up a divestment campaign in your college, get in touch with the Cambridge Zero Carbon Society! 


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