What is Fossil Free UK?
Fossil Free UK is a divestment movement which aims to cut off the fossil fuel industry at its source. By this, I’m not talking about destroying drills or factories. I’m talking about the real source. The project aims to encourage big organisations and cities to quit investing in fossil fuel companies and invest more considerately.
One of the movement’s biggest targets for divestment is universities and academic institutions. Through endowment funds and pension investments, it is estimated that the total investment wealth of universities is £62 billion. To put that figure in perspective, the London 2012 Olympics cost £9.3 billion and the much huffed about annual bill for jobseekers allowance comes to £4.9 billion. With high end universities sitting on this money, Fossil Free UK believes universities hold ethical and environmental responsibility over how they spend it. Campaigners find the large amounts that universities across the UK currently invest in the fossil fuel industry deeply worrying, with the most conservative estimates set at £1.9 billion, but thought to be probably up to £5.2 billion altogether.
Research shows that in order to stay below a 2°C rise in global temperatures, 80% of currently known carbon reserves must be left in the ground. A lot of people see fossil fuels as the only realistic option and consider that alternatives are too far in the future to be of use now. But whether you are an environmental warrior or an economic pundit, we can all still agree that it is not the best idea to invest in a limited resource.
Sarina Singh-Khaira, marine biology masters student, said in response “I learnt today that oil and gas is due to run out in 34 years, which is sooner than I thought. To imagine oil and gas runs out in our lifetime is almost crazy – given the fairly placid responses of governments in finding alternate sources.”
What is the other side to the argument? …
“There’s two ways of looking at it,” economic graduate Matt Turner said when questioned, “I’m sure you’ve looked a lot at the climate change, and general environmental aspects of it. But if you take away investment, potentially the price of fossil fuels will rise, which most people think will be a good thing. But this could end up just being another tax on the poor.”
When running the campaign at Highfield campus, petitioners were also faced with the challenge of trying to divest investment from the future employment of students who are studying subjects along the lines of geology and geophysics. The Fossil Free UK campaign suggests students should be encouraged to look for employment in more ethical organisations.
If decent alternative investments can not be found, there is fear that the pension funds of university staff may be jeopardised.
What progress has there been across the country, and in Southampton?
Progress has been made internationally and is happening slowly but surely in the UK. In October 2014, University of Glasgow became the first university in Europe to commit to divestment. SOAS in London has committed to divesting over the next three years and in January 2015 the University of Bedfordshire committed to divestment, claiming they wanted to “take seriously the threat of climate change”.
Southampton University has so far failed to provide answers to People and Planet, so it cannot be told exactly what their investment is. Southampton are keeping their investment information private. University of Southampton claims to have a mission to “change the world for the better” but at present does this seem like empty words?
A Fossil Free Southampton campaign is being run by Green Action Southampton, who are gathering student signatures for their petition for the University to divest from the industry as well as raising awareness of the campaign on campus. They have also sent a letter to Vice Chancellor Don Nutbeam and other heads of the university advising them to consider divestment from fossil fuels.
Aidan Starr, president of the university’s Marine Conservation Society stated: “The Southampton University Marine Conservation Society were specifically interested in this campaign due to the significant links to marine environment. The effect of fossil fuel use ranges from oil spills to sea level rise. The release of carbon dioxide associated with fossil fuel combustion also drives ocean acidification (often dubbed the evil twin of climate change). I personally don’t want to be part of a generation that sits back and watches our planet destroyed through human activity.”