Here are five things we learned:
1. The end for fossil fuels is near, but will it be in time?
The Climate Change Collaboration articulated how the climate crisis is already wreaking havoc - disproportionately impacting those least responsible for it. As our universities have been shaping societies for centuries and are looked up to, they have a responsibility to use their agency and influence to hasten the just transition away from fossil fuels and into a low-carbon world.
2. Students led the way. Institutions followed.
Both Durham University and Trinity College Dublin emphasized the fundamental role that students played in the institution’s decision to move their money out of extractor fossil fuel companies. From raising it as a concern in the first place to researching everything from the moral to the financial justifications for such a move, students put pressure on and worked with these universities at every point in the process. Durham and Trinity also spoke of the meaningful relationships they formed with the student body as a result and how this has significantly contributed to institutional democracy. This resonates with the stories of other divested institutions, so if you’re progressing a campaign never underestimate the transformational effect you are having just by getting the conversation started!
3. Shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies is not perceived as being a role for Durham and Trinity
This is because they felt that they didn’t have the expertise, the resources or the time to engage as shareholders in an impactful way. The Climate Change Collaboration reinforced this, highlighting how shareholder engagement is complex in that different shareholders are often demanding conflicting actions (e.g. shut down business operations vs transition to a renewable business model) and how engagement does not protect university investments as the economy transitions away from fossil fuels. Interestingly Durham - despite divesting their endowment holdings from them - continue to work with fossil fuel companies on exploring renewable alternatives and processes such as carbon capture and storage. This relationship directly challenges the myth that research funding will be negatively impacted by the decision to divest.
4. The positive impacts of divestment for universities cannot be underplayed
Both Durham and Trinity spoke with gratitude for the students that bought this to their attention in the first place, with Trinity stating that “divestment has been a very positive decision” and that they “can’t understate the benefit of divestment”. They also stated that they have not had any negative responses or feedback to their decision to divest. In fact, Durham has had the opposite reaction from fossil fuel extractors, who now actively want to explore renewable energy alongside them as a result of their divestment decision. Sadly, concerns surrounding negative responses to such a commitment is often used as a justification not to go through with it.
5. There needs to be discussion about where money is moved to
Durham’s reinvestment will consist of the extractor fossil fuel holdings being “recycled” within its portfolio, therefore being redistributed to other companies within it. Trinity are taking a similar approach - with a positive performance thus far. At NUS we believe divested universities should keep open the dialogue with student organisers when deciding where to reinvest - just like Durham and Trinity have. NUS believe this open dialogue is important to avoid money being reinvested into other exploitative industries that students are campaigning against, such as the arms trade - which Durham already excluded from their holdings as part of their investment strategy. We also hope that as an increasing number of universities start to reinvest, some of the endowment is sectioned off for the university body to vote on where it should be moved to - and that community energy projects are included within those options.
Huge thanks to the Intentional Endowments Network, the Climate Change Collaboration and of course, the speakers from Durham University and Trinity College Dublin for such an interesting webinar.