Cambridge to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in renewables

University says carbon emissions from all investments will balance out at zero by 2038 and that all donations must align with climate goals

October 1, 2020
University of Cambridge
Source: iStock

The University of Cambridge has said it will fully divest from fossil fuels by 2030, and achieve “net zero” carbon emissions from its investments by 2038.

The university also said that it would build up “significant investments” from its £3.5 billion Cambridge University Endowment Fund, the largest higher education endowment in Europe, in renewable energy by 2025.

The changes will mean that the university will be the first to balance out its greenhouse gas emissions from its investment activities to zero, which will coincide with its goal to reach zero emissions across the institution in 2038.

Cambridge vice-chancellor Stephen Toope made the announcement at his annual address to the university and said that the university was responding “to a pressing environmental and moral need for action with an historic announcement that demonstrates our determination to seek solutions to the climate crisis”.

“We will approach with renewed confidence our collaborations with government, industry and research partners around the world as together we work for a zero-carbon future,” he said.

The move follows significant campaigns in recent years for universities to divest, but although Cambridge had committed to have no direct holdings in the most polluted industries, it had yet to fully divest from fossil fuels, such as through indirectly managed funds.

As part of the announcement, the university recognised the contributions that students and staff made to the decision “by keeping the issue on the agenda”.

The new targets include withdrawing investments with conventional energy-focused public equity managers by December 2020 and to then have fully redeployed those investments into renewable energy by 2025. It will divest from all meaningful exposure in fossil fuels, such as through investments with general fund managers that occasionally have an energy in their portfolio, by 2030.

Currently, 2.8 per cent of Cambridge’s investment portfolio is invested in the energy industry, which amounts to just under £100 million. 

Cambridge’s chief investment officer, Tilly Franklin, admitted that it would “be really difficult to implement, as at the moment there aren’t that many companies that operate with a net zero emissions profile”.

“The economy as a whole will have to change, but we want to be an influencer and at the cutting edge of working with those companies that are, in turn, leaders in their field in the race to zero,” she told Times Higher Education.

At the same time, the university also announced that from now on all research funding and other donations will “be scrutinised to ensure that the donor can demonstrate compatibility with the university’s objectives on cutting greenhouse gas emissions before any funding is accepted”.

Cambridge came under fire last year for accepting a multimillion-pound donation from Shell to fund a team researching oil extraction technology, though the university said at the time that the “research related to the gift is on supporting the transition to a zero-carbon economy”, and has previously accepted previous donations from oil companies such as BP and ExxonMobil.

The Cambridge Zero Carbon campaign said it was “a historic victory for the divestment movement. After decades of close collaboration with the fossil fuel industry, Cambridge University has been forced to concede to divestment demands put forward by student and staff campaigners.”

Robert Macfarlane, author and fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, said that “finally, the voices of those speaking out for climate justice have been listened to and acted on”, while naturalist David Attenborough said it was “hugely encouraging that Cambridge University, home of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, should now be making this important contribution towards the restoration of the health of the natural world”.

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