Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

Oxford University and the guise of climate consciousness

Oxford University and climate action. Opinions on Oxford’s relationship with such action differ profusely across student activist groups, the University administration and climate-focused academics. In navigating the conflicting views and disagreements between key stakeholders, data made available to the public in response to FOI requests, is of paramount significance. Thus, it is through a data-oriented lens, that in the context of the last decade being the warmest in historical record and projected warming of 2.6-4.8 degrees celsius if no change is made to current levels of emissions, Oxford University’s self-defeating ties with the fossil fuel industry and the contradictions between its policies and actions are exposed.

To understand the inconsistency in the University’s policies and rhetoric regarding the climate crisis on the one hand, and its fiscal actions on the other, one needs to go back to the university’s milestone unveiling of The Oxford Martin Principles for Climate Conscious Investment in 2018. 

The principles were developed in the context of two important background conditions. The first is that in order to meet the aims of the 2016 Paris Agreement – which was to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century – annual emissions would need to reduce 43% by 2030 compared to 2019 levels. 

The second key contextual condition for the principles was the Sullivan Principles from which they took inspiration. These principles, released in 1977 against the backdrop of Apartheid in South Africa, provided seven requirements concerning equal treatment of employees regardless of race (explicitly in contradiction with racial segregation policies under Apartheid) that needed to be met by any corporation in South Africa as a condition for doing business with overseas companies and investors. The Sullivan Principles were adopted by 125 US companies, and during their introduction and the divestment campaign they prescribed, there was much appraisal for the principles’ success. In 2020, the Oxford Martin Principles sought to replicate their model and apply it to the urgent need to ensure that two-thirds of current fossil fuel reserves remained unburned in order to meet the demands of the Paris Agreement. 

There are three Oxford Martin Principles: (1) commitment to ‘net-zero’ emissions, (2) developing a profitable net-zero business model, and (3) quantitative medium-term targets. They prescribe that companies should develop and publish a transition strategy to reach a net-zero target. For companies providing carbon intensive services or fuels with “no currently available substitutes”, the principles advise “a clear plan” for developing and deploying substitutes. According to the principles, these plans all should be in the timescale of the mid-term; which in 2018 was 2030 according to the Oxford Martin Principles briefing document, yet there is minimal explanation for how this definition of the ‘mid-term’ has been reached.

The function of the principles is to “provide a framework for engagement between climate conscious investors and companies across the global economy”, and generate a checklist that must be met by companies outside of Oxford looking to meet the ‘climate conscious’ label. According to the Oxford Martin School website, by the close of the programme’s launch in November 2020, “the principles had influenced the strategies of investment management companies and institutional investors that control a combined £62.5 billion,” including Sarasin and Partners and other such global investment management companies, alongside St Hilda’s College and New College. 

What is crucial to note is that the principles have also been fundamental to Oxford University’s own financial policies. In the 2022 OEF report from Oxford University Endowment Management (OUem) –the subsidiary responsible for managing the University’s £6 billion endowment – it is specified that OUem “asked all investment partners to use the Oxford Martin Principles for Climate Conscious Investment”. Oxford’s donations and research funding guidelines specify consideration of “the funder’s commitment to net zero, as evidenced through credible plans to achieve net zero carbon by 2050 or sooner, consistent with the Oxford Martin Principles”. Moreover, the Oxford University Careers Service has introduced a set of questions for recruiters which draw on the principles.

On the most generous understanding, most of the key players in the fossil fuel industry do not meet the standards set by the Oxford Martin Principles. According to evidence collated by Climate Action 100+ – an initiative that assesses the extent to which the “largest corporate greenhouse gas emitters take necessary action on climate change” – whilst ExxonMobil has failed to make a commitment to GHG reduction in the medium term,  Shell does not have a decarbonisation strategy to meet its medium and long term GHG reduction targets, and both BP PLC and Eni SpA’s medium term targets for GHG reduction are not aligned with the global target of limiting warming to 1.5°C. 

In the post-Martin Principles era, it is surprising and deeply worrying to find that Oxford University has maintained its financial relationships with these fossil fuel companies. Freedom of Information data has revealed that, since 2016, research funding in excess of £5.5 million has been provided by the likes of Shell, Eni SpA and other fossil fuel companies to Oxford University. Moreover, the proportion of funding annually provided by these companies did not decrease with the passing of the Oxford Martin Principles. In 2020, two years after the principles were published, the total annual funding from fossil fuel companies was 3.5% higher than in 2017. Likewise, the total donations from fossil fuel companies including Shell, ExxonMobil, Eni SpA and BP to Oxford schools or departments did not change following the implementation of the principles in 2018. Sizeable donations between £500 000–£999 999 have been donated to the university in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. Sums of up to £500 000 were repeatedly donated between 2016 and 2023, suggesting little change as a result of the passing of the principles.

The extent of the relations between Oxford and these key players in the fossil fuel industry is illustrated by records of non-transactional interactions as well. In November 2023, a Freedom of Information request was lodged by Oxford students to retrieve the list of official meetings and conferences between 2021 to 2022 attended by the three directors of Oxford Net Zero – a research initiative whose mission is to “inform effective and ambitious climate action among those setting net zero targets in institutions and governments across the globe” – with the largest oilfield service companies and members of the Carbon Underground Top 200. Importantly, two of these three directors are researchers at the oxOxford Martin School, and were involved in drafting the Oxford Martin Principles. What the FOI request discovered tells a story unaccounted for in Oxford Net Zero’s mission statement. The inquiry retrieved lists of lunches, receptions, workshops and “connects” with Shell, Equinor, BP and Exxon Mobil between 2021–23. In 2021, three years after the Oxford Martin Principles were first implemented, 14 meetings and conferences between Oxford Net Zero’s directors and fossil fuel companies took place. For context, one of these supposed  ‘meetings’ was a lunch with BP at the Hotel Du Vin in Glasgow – during COP26

So, not only are Oxford University’s economic ties to fossil fuel companies still existing at the levels of funding and donations, but the actors responsible for setting the industry-leading sustainability targets embedded in the Oxford Martin Principles are, in fact, consistently engaging with the corporations from which the principles themselves stipulate divestment and delinking. The optimist might speculate that these meetings are the basis for constructing the conditions for complete delinking from fossil fuel companies or pressing for climate action in the fossil fuel industry. However, the lack of transparency regarding the content of these meetings means we have no way of corroborating such speculation. No minutes or reports of any of these meetings are available beyond the data retrieved from the freedom of information inquiry. 

Given the insufficient action of key corporations in the fossil fuel industry, including BP, to take action towards, or even implement, medium term GHG reduction targets in line with limiting emissions to 1.5°C, there seems to be little case for optimism, and rather has motivated negative speculation about Oxford University’s actual intentions amongst student activists. Oxford Climate Society Presidents Flora Prideaux (current) and Guy Zilberman (former) echo such speculation, stating that “Oxford University’s educational and research approach to the climate crisis is manufactured by the same individual assisting the fossil fuel industry with its ‘strategy’. This coordination is actively harming students and academics in the institution, shaping the research produced by the university. 

Against the backdrop of climate emergency, the question remains: what do we make of all this? 

To put a finger on it, there is a twofold concern regarding the current state of affairs. Firstly, Oxford University is not ‘delinking’ from the fossil fuel industry. Delinking refers to breaking the wider scope of ties between the University and corporations – that is, cutting research funding, donations and engagement with fossil fuel corporations in regular meetings. This alone is deeply problematic as it diminishes the effect of divestment from fossil fuel companies where it has taken place, as it is still affirming their social licence whilst negating the social ostracisation and diminished economic agency that ought to follow from such divestment.

The second major worry is that the problem of failed delinking with fossil fuel companies is exacerbated in virtue of the University’s creation of and self-proclaimed adherence to the Oxford Martin Principles. The fossil fuel companies we have a record of the University engaging with do not meet the targets set by the principles. Thus, despite the guise of rigour and due diligence in sustainability that is afforded research funding or donation guidelines from their engagement with the Oxford Martin Principles, in practice, the principles are either being consistently undermined, or rather are serving to preserve existing comfortable and economically beneficial ties that Oxford University has with major fossil fuel companies. 

Whilst this self-undermining is no doubt embarrassing, what is more worrying is the complicity of the principles in sustaining linkage to the fossil fuel industry. This linkage sets a precedent for loosely enforcing climate-minded policy which has a high risk of replication by other higher education institutions and commercial corporations, given Oxford’s position of academic and best practice exemplarity in the UK. That Oxford is providing a set of principles to be used as bases for corporate climate policies, but those principles are entirely compatible with maintaining significant ties to the fossil fuel industry, provides fertile ground for half-hearted and performative climate action policies, that en masse could vastly detriment and impede global efforts to deal with the climate crisis. 

The contradiction taking place is more than a morally wrong, and totally undermining offence. It is fundamentally shaping and directing approaches to climate action in industry. The incentive to get fossil fuel corporations to reduce their carbon emissions does not exist when these corporations are still funding research, still getting shoe-ins to personal meetings with key stakeholders, and in this process being accorded legitimacy and kudos by leading climate research initiatives.

Students cannot sit still. The University’s ties to the fossil fuel industry may still be deeply ingrained, but they are not interminable. The Oxford Martin Principles have been insufficient to eradicate such ties. More is needed, and what more, I think, should be directed by students, by the next generation, by researchers not ascribing to the ‘carbon-zero’ hegemony that dominates Oxford climate research. The extent of Oxford’s imbrication with the fossil fuel industry is by no means uncovered. Here is a narrative that is part of a far bigger picture, and there is an unwavering impetus to not only complete the story but do everything in our power to rewrite it.  

When asked to comment, the University of Oxford told Cherwell:

Our partnerships and collaborations with industry allow researchers to apply their knowledge and expertise to the challenges of pressing global concern, including research into climate-related issues and renewables. 

The University receives research funding and donations from companies and organisations from the fossil fuel sector, typically at an average of ~£3m pa in research funding( < 1% of research turnover) and ~£2m pa in philanthropic donations. These funds are used principally to support researchers and activities aimed at speeding the transition to a net zero carbon future, or to support activities not connected to fossil fuels (such as research on anti-microbial resistance).

“In 2022, Council made a decision not to accept donations or research funding from companies and organisations in the extractive fossil fuel sector unless those companies had (a) a published commitment to net zero in line with the Paris Agreement; (b) a clear strategy and business model for achieving net zero; and (c) medium term metrics of progress. As of last year, the University has employed, from internal funding, a researcher, embedded in the Oxford Net Zero initiative, specifically dedicated to evaluating the net zero strategies of extractive fossil fuel companies in support of this decision.”

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles