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University pledges partial fossil fuel divestment

Oxford students and environmental campaigners have welcomed the University’s commitment this week to rule out any future direct investments in coal and tar sands.

In a decision on Monday by Council, the University’s executive governing body, it was revealed for the first time that Oxford currently has no direct investments in coal and tar sands, and has pledged to maintain this position in any future investment decisions.

Bill McKibben, founder of the climate campaign website 350.org, commented, “Oxford may be the greatest university on our planet, and if anyone thought its great age might keep it from shaping the future, this decision should prove them wrong. Today it has offered great leadership on the crisis of our time.”

The decision follows years of campaigning on the issue by Oxford students, academics and campaigners, with OUSU creating an official divestment campaign in Trinity Term 2013. In March of this year, a group of Oxford alumni occupied the University’s Clarendon Building in protest at Council’s decision to defer its divestment statement until this week. 41 college common rooms, representing both graduate and undergraduate students, have passed motions supporting the divestment campaign, whilst students and academics have signed open letters calling for divestment.

However, the victory for the divestment movement was only partial, as the University failed to divest from fossil fuels completely. Currently, around three per cent of Oxford’s £1.7 billion Endowment Fund is invested in the energy sector, with more than half of that proportion invested in energy exploration and extraction industries.

Andrew Taylor, a campaign manager at People & Planet, added, “If you live in the shadow of tar sand extraction and your baby [has] been air lifted to hospital after drinking the water after a spill, it doesn’t matter if under ten per cent of the culprit’s production comes from tar sands.”

The University of Oxford has also promised to incorporate for the first time a full breakdown of its sector exposure in its annual investment report, the latest of which is due to be released next month.

Critics point out that this does not go far enough as it will not disclose the specific companies Oxford invests in. In protest at Oxford’s decision not to opt for total divestment, 70 alumni plan to hand back their degrees this Saturday.

One such alumnus, Sunniva Taylor, commented, “With the decision today the University has taken a step forward, but not a big enough one. I, with others, have decided to hand back my degree, in protest.”

Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton told The Guardian, “We see the main purpose of our investment fund as generating the financial resources to support our academic purpose. However, our investment managers take a long-term view and take into account global risks, including climate change, when considering what investments to make. The University believes that approach to be the right one and today’s decision reinforces it by encouraging greater engagement and reporting on this crucial issue to the environment and all of society.”

OUSU President Louis Trup welcomed the University’s decision, telling Cherwell, “I’m delighted that the University has taken a step in the right direction by pledging not to invest in coal or tar sands in the future. In the meeting, it was clear that the students who have been campaigning for this through OUSU’s Environment and Ethics campaign have changed the minds of some major critics. The work the campaign has done alongside Dan Tomlinson and Ruth Meredith [OUSU’s previous and current VPs for Charities and Community] over the past two years should be applauded.

“However, this is only the first step. Now that the University has committed to some form of ethical investment, it must continue to take further steps to ensure that its wider investments are not funding devastating environmental disasters. But all in all, today is a good day.”

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