Carbon-free Soas

Paul Webley calls on the academy to follow the institution’s lead and divest from fossil fuels

May 21, 2015

Within three years, our investment portfolio will not contain any companies involved in the extraction of oil or gas

Soas, University of London is divesting from fossil fuels – the second higher education institution in England to make this commitment (“Soas to divest from fossil fuel industry”, 24 April). Following the decision by our governing body, our target is that within three years, our investment portfolio will not contain any companies involved in the extraction of oil or gas.

If you had asked me three years ago where we stood on this issue, I would have said that it wasn’t on our radar. However, the process leading up to the Soas decision has been very straightforward and uncontroversial, and it has been a pleasure to be part of it (particularly seeing our students work so effectively and persuasively). Quite simply, it fits.

Soon after I became director of Soas in 2006, the whole community was engaged to develop a strategic vision for the university’s future. Through the consultation we also articulated our communal values, which included protecting the environment. We pledged to “actively seek to embed good environmental practice at an institutional level and demonstrate a firm commitment to reducing energy consumption”.

We are proud of the progress we have made in reducing our carbon footprint in the past decade. Carbon emissions from our buildings have been reduced by approximately 55 per cent in real terms since 2008-09. This has brought us both reputational and economic benefits. Soas is now listed 20th in Brite Green’s university carbon reduction league table and we are ahead of our carbon reduction target, despite more intensive use of our estate. Soas has been shortlisted in this year’s Camden Business Awards in the Excellence in Energy Efficiency and Carbon Reduction category, and we received a “2:1” from People and Planet’s University League (ranked joint 49th out of 151 institutions). Significantly, reduction in utility consumption is estimated to have saved the institution approximately £1.2 million since 2008-09.

The proposal for Soas to divest from fossil fuels was first made in November 2013, with a unanimous students’ union vote in favour of the move. A coalition of students, staff and alumni formed a group, Fossil Free Soas, to take the proposal further. In June last year, after discussions with the group and initial investigations, Soas’ Investment Advisory Panel agreed to freeze all new investment in fossil fuels while the implications of divestment were further explored. In November, Soas’ governing body created a working group, chaired by one of the student governors, to consider divestment, and the group’s recommendations were accepted by the governing body on 24 April.

A divestment plan has implications for other areas of our work. Gift acceptances, for example, will be a complex area for all universities to consider. At Soas, much of the wealth in one of our specialist regions of research – namely the Middle East – has been created by oil. We cannot avoid that fact. To uphold our decision to divest – and remain consistent and principled in our approach – we will modify our ethical investment criteria and due diligence procedure for philanthropic gifts.

Our divestment also resonates with our recent expansion of teaching and research on environmental issues. Three new environment-focused master’s programmes have been created in the past two years (for distance learning as well as on-campus pedagogy). They consider global energy and climate policy; environment, politics and development; and environmental economics.

Fossil fuel divestment enables Soas to fulfil its responsibilities as an ethical investor while continuing to ensure that our investments deliver a good financial return. This is in line with our commitment to environmental sustainability and forms an important part of the transition towards renewable energy, which we take very seriously. As the harmful social and environmental impact of climate change becomes increasingly clear, these initiatives ensure that Soas is doing all it can to show leadership on this issue. We very much hope that other universities will follow our lead.

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