The University should clean up its investment portfolio

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Over the past few months, Lancaster students and staff have united with “Fossil Free” movements at universities and institutions around the world in campaigning to urge Lancaster University to divest from unethical investments such as those in the fossil fuel industry. Lancaster has already made commendable progress with regards to sustainability and environmental initiatives. The university is one of only six universities across the UK to be shortlisted for an award for Outstanding Contribution to Sustainable Development. In 2013 the university won the Green Gown Award for Carbon Reduction for its travel plan – including car-share schemes, subsidised bus services, and improved cycle routes – and this year the university campus was awarded the Green Flag for the second year running, a national accreditation for high quality green spaces. The Ethical Investments Campaign Group argues that there is a mismatch between these achievements and Lancaster’s financial interest in the fossil fuel industry, and that the university should ethically reflect upon its investment portfolio as well.

The University presently represents itself as “environmentally friendly” in a number of ways. For instance, the wind turbine generates up to 17 per cent of Lancaster’s annual electricity; Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC) produces world class research into the effects and mitigation of climate change and sustainable energy sources, and many other faculties across the university conduct research into environmental sustainability; and the campus itself has award-winning student-led environment projects such as Green Lancaster’s Eco-Hub. Yet despite these successes Lancaster remains only 85th on People and Planet’s Green League, an annual ranking of UK universities based on their environmental performance. This is partially because of Lancaster’s present investment portfolio; the current value of Lancaster’s shares in fossil fuels is £285,000, which amount to around 14% of all Lancaster’s investments. The divestment campaign believes it is becoming increasingly hypocritical for Lancaster to be standing for sustainability whilst simultaneously financing unsustainable carbon-based energy sources.

So why does Lancaster have investments in the first place? These funds exist due to historical endowments individuals have left to the institution, either in their will or in the form of donations. There are four areas in which the university holds money: Banks and Building Societies, fixed asset investments, current asset investments and endowment asset investments.

The divestment campaign seeks to make a real impact within the university’s current asset and endowment asset investments. It is in these that the University’s money is placed in unethical industries including fossil fuels. Current asset investments are relatively easy to influence as they only require consent from within the university’s internal structures. However, endowment asset investments may prove slightly more challenging, as they require convincing a board of external trustees to the goals of the campaign.

What complicates this situation further is that the University does not have any control over where their funds are invested at any one time, as their money is outsourced to a fund manager. The University’s fund manager – Cazenove – chooses the most lucrative and profitable companies to invest in, not the University itself. The University Ethical Investments Group demand the University to reconsider its present investment portfolio and to outsource to fund managers who offer an ethical portfolio, one which reflects our ideals and values as an institution. Although the campaign builds upon the momentum of the international fossil free movement, it also calls for a more thorough ethical investment policy, including divestment from other controversial industries such as the arms trade.

Laura Clayson, LUSU President, spoke to us saying “our University Statutes states that ‘The objects of the University shall be to advance knowledge, wisdom and understanding by teaching and research and by the example and influence of its corporate life’. To me, investing in the arms and fossil fuel industries contradicts this, as they contribute to the very global problems we would hope knowledge, wisdom and understanding would resolve.

“University communities are able to challenge this status quo, to question the decisions of previous generations and to create an alternative future, and that is what this campaign is all about.”

The campaign strongly believes that Lancaster University’s involvement in the fossil fuel industry is fundamentally incompatible with its image as a “green university” actively promoting and researching renewable energy and sustainability.

“The turbine demonstrates our commitment to sustainability and carbon reduction.” A contradiction in message? Photo: Aecom

“The turbine demonstrates our commitment to sustainability and carbon reduction.” A
contradiction in message? Photo: Aecom

The group are hoping to have a similar victory to Glasgow University who, on Wednesday Week 1, successfully persuaded their university to completely divest from fossil fuels, becoming the first academic institution in Europe to do so. The university court voted to divest £18m from the fossil fuel industry and freeze all new investments across its entire endowment of £128m. This success was led by the Glasgow University Climate Action Society and the students’ union, involving more than 1,300 students. Prestigious institutions such as the University of Edinburgh and Oxford University have also joined the ranks, and have ongoing campaigns calling for fossil fuel divestment.

Gordon Blair, Professor within the School of Computing and Communications, told us “This is a tremendously important campaign and I call on staff and students to work together to ensure it is successful. I believe universities should show intellectual and moral leadership and I would love Lancaster to follow the lead shown by Glasgow and taking the step to disinvest in fossil fuels, particularly given the fact that much of the supporting research supporting this argument emanates from Lancaster.”

Over the past few months, more than 800 global investors – including the Rockefeller Brothers, religious groups, healthcare organisations, universities and local governments – have pledged to withdraw a total of 50bn dollars of investments from fossil fuel industry over the next five years as a result of campaigns which began on university campuses in the US. On a national level, the “Fossil Free” universities movement has been led by People and Planet and climate campaign group 350.org since October 2013, with an estimated 31 academic institutions now having active fossil free campaigns. In total, UK universities represent £5.2bn investments in fossil fuel companies including BP and Shell.

At the time SCAN went to print, the petition for Lancaster to divest from unethical investments had collected over 500 signatures – from both students and members of academic and non-academic staff – and the Ethical Investments Group hopes to reach 1000 signatures by Week 10. Whilst convincing Lancaster to completely divest from fossil fuels may still be a way off, the Ethical Investments Group believes that the campus-wide support for the petition demonstrates a step in the right direction.

Emily Winter, PhD student and campaigner with the Ethical Investments Group, told us “Our University is fuelling, and profiting from, two industries that are wreaking destruction on this planet. This campaign is calling our university to join other institutions worldwide in taking a moral stand on this issue and exercising greater socio-political responsibility over their investments.”

So what can you do to help? Every Tuesday afternoon during Michaelmas Term members of the campaign group will be petitioning in Alexandra Square; bi-weekly meetings are also held to discuss campaign strategies and future plans. Join the Facebook group ‘University Investments Group’ to find out more, sign and circulate the petition, or visit gofossilfree.org.

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