Partial Progress! Edinburgh to divest from coal and tar sands…

16 Jun

Nearly three weeks ago, on Wednesday 27th, Edinburgh University released a statement signalling its intention to divest from three of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies in the next six months due to their exploitation of coal and tar sands.

It was jubilating news but we didn’t quite believe it.

The trio of veteran People & Planeters delegated to meet with the university that morning, shortly before the statement’s release, returned with expressions of confused optimism, delivering the news to the rest of us in a hesitating tone: ‘I think, we might have won…?’

It’s not that we weren’t expecting them to give ground, some form of capitulation seemed inevitable, but hitherto our interactions had left us with a dim and distrustful view of the university. Considering the duplicitous hypocrisy of their position throughout the occupation, outwardly professing their support for our right to peaceful protest, while simultaneously attempting to stonewall criticism and stifle the occupation, our caution wasn’t totally unjustified.

A couple of hours later the statement was released: ‘The University is writing to three of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers to inform them that it intends to fully divest from their activities within the next six months.’ (Full statement: http://www.ed.ac.uk/news/2015/fossilfuelsupdate-260515)

The media rapidly picked up the story, reporting the university’s new commitment to divest from coal and tar sands, and we breathed an explosive sigh of relief at how hard it would be for them to renege now. Everywhere the words ‘backtracks’ and ‘U-turns’ cropped up and this is an important part of the victory. It’s empowering, rightly crediting the protesters’ capacity to influence the university.

Actually this whole campaign has been a testament to the value of activism. It has inspired a huge range of people – staff, students and the general public – and managed to reach so many who wouldn’t normally describe themselves as ‘activists’. The comprehensive panoply of news coverage, the avalanche of support from individuals and organisations across the world, and most significantly the success of forcing the university to listen, all attest to protest being both efficacious and worthwhile.

Something has clearly been achieved but precisely what remains to be seen. The university’s commitments are full of disconcerting shortcomings. For starters, this is obviously not complete divestment, not even close. No promises have been made about other fossil fuels (oil and gas, for example), only about the most harmful ones (coal and tar sands) and for the university to stop here would be an unpardonable moral cop-out.

Even with coal and tar sands there is a worrying haziness surrounding Edinburgh’s intention to give fossil fuel companies four weeks to respond, a face-saving measure included in deference to the university’s commitment to engaging with fossil fuel companies. (Quickly, let’s be clear that this is ridiculous. Investment funds and institutions have been promising to ‘engage’ fossil fuel companies for years with no meaningful results. Edinburgh has an endowment fund of around £300m but its investments are still a pathetic pittance relative to the amount invested in multinational fossil fuel companies. To suggest that they have the investor clout to fundamentally change the behaviour of such companies is at best ludicrously hubristic, and at worst a disingenuous avoidance tactic.)

When we directly pressed them on this, ‘what could these companies say or do to stop you from divesting?’, they refused to specify. Quite apart from the total lack of transparency, this allows for the alarming possibility that they might accept the most environmentally insignificant, meagre token gesture as grounds for wriggling out of divestment. This would, of course, be a huge betrayal which would invariable precipitate a furious backlash, but could set the whole campaign back to square one.

Perhaps this seems paranoid? Call me an unforgiving cynic but I don’t think Edinburgh University’s senior management have been struck by an environmental road-to-Damascus change of heart (no energy-saving-lightbulb moment, as it were). Important and welcome as their promise is, it will remain a hollow gesture if not promptly followed by meaningful steps towards divestment. It will take an awful lot more for Edinburgh to prove – to its students and to the world – that it takes seriously its investment responsibilities.

Luckily for the university they’ve got People & Planet here to help! The demands of the ethical investment campaign remain as they were when it was launched three years ago: that Edinburgh University divests completely and permanently from all fossil fuels and arms companies.

Over the past two weeks we’ve been discussing how best to pursue these aims. The university’s working group on arms investments will be meeting over the summer and People & Planet will be calling for a strong stance to be taken against arms investments. Crucially we will also be holding the university to account on its coal and tar sands promise, monitoring progress to ensure it meets its divestment commitment.

The success of two weeks ago has buoyed spirits and going into the next academic year the campaign has a vigorous momentum and many new members. We will be looking into collaborations with other activist groups as well as reaching out to university staff to strengthen our campaign as we call upon the university to ‘divest the rest’ (catchier slogans are still in development.).

So it’s a wonderful relief to see Edinburgh backtracking and taking some very welcome steps towards divestment; but there’s a long way to go and we won’t be resting on our laurels. Ardent congratulations and thanks to everyone who has been involved and given People & Planet such incredible support. We hope to see you soon as the campaign continues.

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