By Henry Webb

Higher Education institutions have the power to decide whether the fossil fuel industry lives or dies. The dominant players in the energy sector may seem unstoppable. After all, as long as the oil keeps flowing, they’ll find someone to buy it. Their lobbyists will make sure of that. But these behemoths require resources beyond those of just the raw coal, oil, and gas that we are so dependent on – they need capital. Without investment banks to finance everything from pipelines to offshore rigs, the costly infrastructure needed for fossil fuel extraction just wouldn’t exist.

Universities may contribute to this problem in two main ways. The first of these is direct investment, where fossil fuel companies and projects are directly included in a university’s investment portfolio. Many universities still have these dirty investments on the books, but there has been a growing trend towards divestment from fossil fuels over the past decade. Norwich’s University of East Anglia (UEA) sold its £320,000 in fossil fuel company shares back in 2017, following 4 years of lobbying by students.

The second main way universities support fossil fuel extraction is through indirect investment. UEA is less commendable in this area – it has yet to cut ties with finance providers that still support the industry. According to email correspondence between UEA’s finance committee and Hannah Hoechner, a lecturer in international development, UEA has about £5 million banked with Barclays.

As the UK’s largest fossil fuel financer, Barclays has lent a staggering amount to fossil fuel companies: almost £91 billion between 2015 and 2019. This includes capital for controversial extraction methods like arctic oil drilling and fracking, as well as energy-intensive tar sands oil production, which many competitors have withdrawn funding from. Despite this, the banking giant claims to be working towards net-zero carbon emissions, stating on their website:

“Our ambition is to become a net-zero bank by 2050. And we’ve made a firm commitment to align our entire financing portfolio to the goals of the Paris Agreement. That means our own operations, and the financing we do for our clients, in every sector, will support the goal of limiting global warming.”

Given Barclays’ track record, and the precedent set by the finance industry as a whole, we should be highly sceptical of these claims. Already over 10 UK students’ unions are boycotting Barclays. Portsmouth university are reviewing their investments with the bank, and Loughborough students successfully campaigned to remove them from campus careers fairs.

UEA’s scores in the People and Planet university sustainability league 2019. Note the score of 0% for ‘Ethical Investment’.

UEA prides itself on its ‘green’ image. In May of last year, UEA declared a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency, and the institution received a good overall score on People and Planet’s 2019 university ranking table. However, UEA’s failure to fully divest banking from providers like Barclays and its lack of a public ethical investment policy yielded a 0% score in the category of Ethical Investment and Banking in those rankings.

There are other resources besides capital that the higher education sector provides to the fossil fuel industry. Perhaps most significantly, they supply a steady stream of graduates to employ. Right now, institutions across the world are training a new generation of fossil fuel workers. The engineers and scientists that should be building infrastructure for a zero-carbon future are instead learning skills that will allow extractive industries to continue to exploit the planet’s limited resources.

Having just completed a foundation year in engineering, I was offered trips to manufacturers of oil rig control equipment, while climate change was mentioned in the course perhaps once. Careers fairs invite Shell and BP, while companies innovating in zero-carbon infrastructure are noticeably absent. All of this results in students leaving higher education under the illusion that these are still sustainable career options. That climate breakdown is a future problem. That we can just let the free market do its thing, and the greatest threat humans have ever faced will fix itself. This scares me. Because I know that it could not be further from the truth.

If the average person buys into the energy industry’s carefully planned misinformation campaigns, we’ve lost

Looking at the media, it may seem as though everyone in my generation is climate-striking every week, terrified for the future and ready to tear down the systems of injustice that got us here. I wish that were the case. From talking to other students, it’s clear that even though a large majority know climate change requires action now, the scale of action needed is still rarely understood. This is a fundamental failing of our education system.

By not properly educating the population, universities are providing fossil fuel companies with another resource vital to their survival: a population willing to put up with their bullshit. If the average person buys into the energy industry’s carefully planned misinformation campaigns, we’ve lost. And the only thing between where we are now and a world where these campaigns become useless is education.

We already know that the billionaire-owned media can’t be trusted to do this job. This change has to start with the education system, and as largely independent institutions, universities should lead that change. UEA and others like it are already leading in many ways, but it isn’t nearly enough. Divestment must mean completely ending support of the industries that are taking our future from us.

Divestment means no more investment in fossil fuels, direct or indirect. It means kicking fossil fuel companies out of careers fairs. It means cutting back staff and student use of aviation and unnecessary travel as much as possible. And of course, it means clear, consistent climate crisis education across all schools and courses.

We might not be able to cut off the supply of oil, but the education system has an incredible amount of power to influence the legitimacy of this industry. Higher education needs to lead that change, and UEA should start by ending its indirect investment in fossil fuels through Barclays.

Featured image via People & Planet

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