The love affair is over: The universities breaking ties with fossil fuel industry

SOURCE: Johannes Eisele / AFP
Students participate in the Global Climate Strike march on September 20, 2019 in New York City.

By Emma Richards 

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The world is falling woefully short of measures needed to avert climate disaster and avoid some of the more extreme consequences of rising carbon dioxide levels, data from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) spelt out on Monday.

As the data points to 2019 being the hottest year on record, the authors of the report, the Science Advisory Group, have made the case to world leaders that time is running out. Climate change is accelerating with sea levels rising, carbon dioxide levels increasing and ice sheets melting faster than ever before.

The report is a stark warning and an urgent call to action to all world leaders if they want to avert disaster. It could not be more timely as international delegations convene in New York this week for the United Nations Climate Summit where secretary-general Antonio Guterres is expected to push for countries to commit to bigger greenhouse gas emission targets.

fossil fuel divestment
Students participate in the Global Climate Strike march on September 20, 2019 in New York City. Source: Timothy A. Clary / AFP

Targets are simply not being met and the group warns that even if the current goals were achieved, the world would still be barrelling towards catastrophic effects. Rather than slowing down, climate change has been speeding up.

Carbon emissions between 2015 and 2019 have grown by 20 percent compared with the previous five years.

Sea levels have been rising by an average of 5 millimetres a year in the past five years, compared to 3.2 millimetres a year on average since 1993. Much of this is attributed to the melting of glaciers and ice sheets at the poles, with Arctic summer sea ice declining at a rate of 12 percent per decade over the past 40 years.

The outlook is bleak unless there are global sweeping changes to the way society operates. Guterres says the world is “losing the race,” and with both the United States and Brazil failing to attend this week’s summit, the hopes of reaching global targets are slipping away.


There has never been a more vital time for all sectors of society to take responsibility for their role in the crisis and start playing their part in fixing the problem.

Higher education is no different. Not only is it the source of much of the research into the topic, but as a huge sector and contributor to the problem itself, it needs to develop its own response to climate change.

Campus sustainability policies have become a major focus for most universities. There are now several sustainability rankings that the successful institutions wear like a badge of pride, announcing on their websites and plastering it all over their prospectus.

There has been some sweeping gestures and commitments towards sustainability from the sector in recent months.

fossil fuel divestment
Students and activists hold up a globe as they take part during the Global Climate Strike march downtown Zagreb, Croatia, on September 20, 2019. – Zagreb’s citizens gather at the Croatia capital’s main square to protest against climate change. Source: Denis Lovrovic / AFP

In July, 7,000 colleges and universities across the globe declared a climate emergency and unveiled a three-point plan to collectively commit to addressing the crisis.

The higher education plan commits signatories to going carbon neutral by 2030 or by 2050 at the very latest. It also features pledges to mobilise more resources for climate research and skills creation, as well as improving the delivery of environmental and sustainability education.

More than 600 colleges and universities have signed the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment. In the UK, a growing number of universities are committing to zero carbon emissions before 2050, in line with the government’s plans to cut emissions by 80 percent in this time and London’s pledge to be zero carbon by then.


But take a step back from the highly publicised commitments and prospectus-friendly pledges and the picture may not be as squeaky clean as universities may want you to believe.

Despite the many tangible victories for climate conservation, educational institutions remain deeply invested in the very corporations fuelling the climate disaster and that pose a threat to marginalised communities across the world.

It is not uncommon for large organisations, universities included, to invest part of their employee pension plan to build an endowment of funding for the institution. A prime recipient of this investment is the fossil fuel industry, considered reliable and highly lucrative as the world’s dependence on the energy has only continued to increase over recent decades.

But as the global opinion of fossil fuels continues to drop rapidly, higher education’s links with these companies are being called into question. Their financial dealings have come under the spotlight in recent years as more and more students are prioritising a university’s green credentials and questioning the operations of their current institution.

fossil fuel divestment
Thousands of youth demand action during a Climate Change protest in downtown Los Angeles, California on September 20, 2019, as part of a global protest happening around the world. Source: Frederic J. Brown / AFP

The likely consequences of inaction on climate change are very real for the next round of college applicants, as was clearly highlighted by Friday’s climate strike that saw millions of young people across the globe come out to express their concern and implore politicians to act.

For many of them, the hypocrisy of their potential future colleges is tangible and highly disappointing.

According to a 2015 report from the Marcellus Coalition, 832 endowed US public and private not-for-profit colleges and universities held assets in oil and gas totaling US$516 billion. This averages to US$620 million per institution.

Despite university research being the driving force behind the advancement of the climate fight, institutions continue to put finance over findings. As one high school senior put it in an op-ed for Teen Vogue: “Universities and colleges across the United States are still choosing big fossil fuel over our lives by continuing to invest in fossil fuel companies.”


This dissatisfaction from students has been the driving force behind the push for universities to divest from fossil fuel companies. The movement has been bubbling under the surface for some time but has significantly picked up speed in recent months.

Initially viewed just a student cause, research has found overwhelming support from faculty to disconnect from the toxic industry. A 2018 survey at Harvard found 67 percent of faculty respondents supported fossil fuel divestment, while only 9 percent were opposed and 24 percent were neutral.

That support is starting to translate into action. The movement got a huge endorsement last week when the University of California System (UC) – the biggest in the country – announced it is divesting from fossil fuels, making it the largest action yet in the flourishing movement.

fossil fuel divestment
Children hold placards and shout slogans during the “School strike for climate”, as part of a march called “For the climate in Ukraine” in the center of Kiev on September 20, 2019. Source: Sergei Supinsky / AFP

According to UC, by the end of September, their US$70 billion pension fund and US$13.4 billion endowment will no longer hold any stakes in companies involved with extracting fossil fuels.

While UC is the biggest, it is not the first high profile name to question its involvement in the industry.

After the Guardian revealed in January that Cambridge University had been offered two multimillion-pound donations from global fossil fuel corporations at the same time it was considering calls to divest its endowment fund, the university’s management agreed to release its full plan for fossil fuel divestment.

But there remain many leading institutions like HarvardSwarthmore and Middlebury that are resisting against vocal student and faculty opposition of their financial dealings.


Harvard University President Larry Bacow, like his predecessor Drew Faust, maintains that Harvard should instead engage with fossil fuel companies, and that the endowment should not be used as a tool for social activism. He also argues that Harvard’s wide-ranging scholarship on climate change is a more effective means of combatting its effects.

That being said, the movement as a whole is certainly starting to have an effect with some business giants withdrawing their support for the industry.

Over 1,100 institutions with more than US$11 trillion in assets have committed to some form of fossil fuel divestment. They include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Guardian Media Group and the World Council of Churches.

fossil fuel divestment
Protestors shout slogans as they march with placards and banners during a climate change protest in Paris on September 21, 2019. Source: Jacques Demarthon / AFP

According to, the global fossil fuel divestment movement is the fastest growing social movement in history, mobilising trillions of dollars in the fight against climate change.

The announcement from UC is a major win for climate activist and places increased pressure on those institutions still resisting the calls to divest.

As the movement shows no signs of abating, and passion for the fight against climate change continues to grow among the student population, it is likely it is only a matter of time before others follow suit.

The fight to stem the climate crisis is becoming more urgent and powerful than ever, and universities will have an important role to play in the trajectory of that battle. All activists are asking of them is not to profit from the very companies they preach against.