York needs to join the fossil fuel divestment wave

The time has finally come for York to divest from fossil fuels, YUSU Environment & Ethics Officer argues

Gerry Machen

The University of York has £217000 worth of investments in fossil fuel companies. On one hand, this seems like an awfully large amount. On the other hand, it’s not that much – the University of Edinburgh had £6.3 million invested in fossil fuel companies. But due to pressure from campaigners, Edinburgh made the declaration to divest (the opposite of invest) from these companies. So, if Edinburgh can divest £6.3 million, then why can’t York divest £200 000?

York has an ethical investment policy, which states that “[t]he University will not knowingly invest in companies whose activities include practices which directly pose a risk of serious harm to individuals or groups, or whose activities are inconsistent with the mission and values of the University.” 80 per cent of fossil fuel reserves need to remain in the ground to avoid the worst effects of climate change. It’s a disaster that directly poses serious harm to individuals – within the next few decades, climate refugees will become a global crisis. And, as ever, those in the global south will be the most dis-proportionally affected, due to the arrogance of the actions of those in the global north.

But even beyond York’s specific policy, having investments in fossil fuels is not only behind the times, but incongruent. A university is supposed to be a progressive, forward thinking institution. It needs to look to the future and find sustainable alternatives for our society to continue to survive. It isn’t just a business that looks to maximise returns for its shareholders, it should be – and needs to be – so much more than that. A financial reliance on in vestments in dirty energy is unacceptable for such an institution.

York does so many good things to promote sustainability and leaving the world in a better state than we found it. Across the University, over 30 departments have Green Impact teams, who use a workbook of actions to help to make their workplaces more sustainable. One Planet Week is held in the spring term, dedicating a whole week’s worth of University sponsored events and activities, all focused on bringing sustainability to the forefront- this year’s theme being sustainable materials. Commercial services have a “buy local” policy, and are introducing a cup deposit scheme to cut down on the use of single-use coffee cups. Vital research into natural ecosystems and sustainable replacements for single-use plastics goes on in our academic departments. None of the University’s waste goes to landfill, and all of our energy is either generated on campus or is on a matched green tariff.

But by continuing to have investments in fossil fuels however, it feels like all this good work is negated. The University’s sustainability credentials are made a mockery of when they can’t even remove their investments in one of the key things that is causing the world to hurtle towards an environmental apocalypse.

That’s why the Environment + Ethics Collective is campaigning for the University to divest from fossil fuels. The campaign has been running on and off for the past two years, but we’re really hoping that with the ramp up of activities, the University might finally listen. No more poor excuses like “staff and students use planes”, so divestment would be incongruous with this (yep – that was an actual excuse given). But, just because modern society is too linked to fossil fuels at the moment to remove their uses in all forms, that doesn’t mean that the University needs to invest their funds in them!

Our petition is currently at over 1200 signatures, and an open letter has been signed by numerous academics. This Wednesday 21 November is the National Day of Fossil Fuel Divestment, with activities happening up and down the country. At York, our activities include a protest outside Heslington Hall at 10am, and a Speaker Roundtable in Physics at 6:30pm. So come and join us, especially at the protest, to really show the University that this is not something they should do, or that they’d be wise to do: it’s something they must do. 68 other universities have already divested, proving that it’s not some abstract concept – it’s something that the University could absolutely do if they just made the political decision to do so. Like the wave of tobacco divestment before it, the moment for fossil fuel divestment is now.

Don’t be left behind the times, York.