The University of Southampton recently formed a new partnership with Shell International Trading and Shipping Company Ltd in a bid to “make the maritime and shipping sector safer, cleaner and more energy efficient”. This is, of course, the same Shell guilty of a plethora of corporate crimes such as oil leaks and human rights violations in far-flung countries such as Pakistan, Colombia, and Nigeria, not to mention the industry’s unparalleled contribution to climate change. The Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute, which forms part of the University, will be sponsored by and work closely with Shell for “innovative joint research and development”, a venture which will supposedly benefit both parties: funds will be injected into our disciplinary technical research, in turn aiding Shell to undertake further oil exploration activities in deeper water and harsher environments.
There has been a growing campaign against the investment into fossil fuel companies globally which has seen accelerating success. By entering into this partnership, the University is blindly facilitating and encouraging Shell’s destructive and exploitative commerce in oil extraction. Whilst the funds accrued from Shell would be highly valuable to the research of the Marine and Maritime Institute, we have to ask ourselves whether it is really worth it in a world that is beginning to turn its back on fossil fuel investment as a result of stricter climate change targets and policies. The institute prides itself on expertise in environmental and climate systems, so it is paradoxical that it would so willingly enter into a “mutually beneficial” deal with a company literally steeped in blackened eco-morals.
If governments are to fulfil their pledge to keep climate change below the danger limit of 2⁰C, at least two-thirds of the world’s fossil fuels listed as assets would have to remain in the ground. This has led to companies like Shell being increasingly shunned by investors worldwide and stigmatised in the political sphere. According to David Nussbaum, chief executive at WWF-UK, “prudent investors want to be ahead of pack, not following the herd, so they will be preparing for a world where we leave fossil fuels in the ground.” If the university continues supporting research for Shell, it won’t be too long before it is exposed as an unethical and damaging venture that may even be violating future climate change policies. It also risks being unprofitable as oil companies are seeing lower returns on capital thanks to changing and unstable demand and reputational damage caused by fossil fuel divestment campaigns.
Unfortunately this collaboration has not garnered much attention amongst students here, perhaps due to its lack of publicity around campus. Perhaps the university hopes to avoid uncomfortable protests the likes of which were seen at Oxford University after a similar deal was struck with Shell, or maybe we are just not mobilised enough around issues of this scale. Particularly for students and researchers involved in the Marine and Maritime Institute, but also for anyone concerned about the University’s own role in environmental sustainability, this is a question that needs to be brought to the forefront and debated thoroughly before it proceeds any further and we risk becoming a university that is assisting degradation rather than obstructing it.