Fossil fuel divestment plan provokes heated response

Senior professors express ‘outrage’ at Glasgow’s decision to reduce investment

October 16, 2014

Source: Getty

A change of financial climate: Glasgow will reallocate £18 million of investments away from fossil fuel industries

Senior professors at the University of Glasgow have criticised the Scottish institution’s decision to disinvest from fossil fuel companies.

The university announced last week that it plans to reallocate about £18 million of investments over 10 years after a vote by the institution’s governing court.

Campaigners described the decision – which they said made Glasgow the first university in Europe to divest from the fossil fuel industry – as “a major victory”.

But Paul Younger, Rankine chair of engineering and professor of energy engineering at the university, said that he was “utterly dismayed, and vehemently opposed”.

“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,” he said. “The issue of carbon emissions is far too complex and far too important to be amenable to simple gesture politics.”

He claimed that he and his colleagues had made clear their objection in July, meaning that the decision could not be dismissed as “well-meaning naivety”.

“It is better to characterise this as an instance of collective intellectual dishonesty,” he said, adding that, unlike apartheid or tobacco, fossil fuels were “not some unmitigated evil from which no conceivable benefit to society has been derived”.

Rob Ellam, director of the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, operated jointly by Glasgow and the University of Edinburgh, was also “outraged” by the decision.

“I am a champion for environmental science in the University of Glasgow, but my environmental science includes keeping the lights on, keeping people warm and keeping them safely fed,” he said.

Colin McInnes, James Watt chair and professor of engineering science at Glasgow, said that a more nuanced position than “blanket divestment” would be to “engage with the energy sector as responsible investors and innovators, helping expedite these energy transitions”.

David Newall, secretary of Glasgow’s court, said that the university had made the decision because it recognised “the devastating impact that climate change may have on our planet, and the need for the world to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels”.

“Over the coming years we will steadily reduce our investment in the fossil fuel extraction industry, while also taking steps to reduce our carbon consumption,” he said.

A spokesman for Glasgow said that the divestment decision was made “after extensive discussion involving an independent working group”.

“This commitment is subject to reassurance that the financial impact for the university is acceptable, the detail of which will be monitored by the university’s governing body,” he said.

“We do recognise that the announcement has not won the support of everyone, and we respect the right of individuals to make their views known.”

Professor Younger pointed out that the university itself “sees no potential for abandoning gas as its principal source of heating”, since its new heating and power system “will be gas-fired”.

“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,” he said, adding that he hoped that those academic members of the university court who voted in favour of divestment would have “the moral integrity” to turn off the radiators in their offices.

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