Fueling crisis or driving change? Disentangling our relations with destructive industries

Ragnhild Freng Dale
June 15, 2014

Concern for the effects of industrialisation and climate change is neither a 20th nor a 21st century phenomena, but the crisis is reaching new heights in our times. This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill,  while the tar sands industry leaves vast moon landscapes, tailing ponds  and damaged groundwater in its wake, and the legacy from coal mining is  even worse. The 1987 Brundtland Commissions’ report Our Common Future introduced  the word sustainability into mainstream discourse, and acknowledged a  link between development, distribution of wealth and environmental  conservation, but 27 years after they expressed their concern about the ecological limits to economic growth, CO2 emissions are still rising worldwide. CO2  is at its highest atmospheric concentration in at least 60 million  years, potentially higher than at any point in the history of human  habitation on the planet. What prevents the collective action we need to  solve the crisis?

Certainly not lack of knowledge. In October last year, the United  Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the  first part of their Fifth Assessment Report, synthesizing the latest knowledge in climate change research  from the top climate researchers across the world. Their results  confirmed our knowledge with greater clarity than ever before: climate  change is happening now and is “extremely likely” to be caused by us.  That is as close to a fact as you get in science. And, unless we do  something about it, we are headed for severe and irreversible change.  Whilst not a political body, the most recent Summary for Policymakers  clearly states that climate policies can be informed by scientific  findings, which their reports have synthesized and made accessible for a  large and wide-ranging audience. The second and third parts of the  report predict impacts and provide emission scenarios for a world at  different temperatures. Given that we want to avoid a climatically  unstable world, the IPCC is therefore a powerful corrective for a  roadmap on how to get there.

The answer should be fairly evident: we need to change our reliance  on fossil fuels and transition to cleaner energy systems. And we need to  do so fast. The IPCC report offers a clear guide on how much CO2  we need to cut, and by which year, in order to adapt to the changes  coming before the worst hits. A range of different technologies is  needed and many of them already exist, but must be accompanied by  policies and international agreements. The failure is often pictured as  political: climate negotiations repeatedly fail, becoming blame-games  where no country is willing to sacrifice their right to emit so long as  everyone else fails to reciprocate. Large countries like the United  States and China are unwilling to agree to common terms, and developing  countries assert their right to raise standards of living at the cost of  emissions associated with such development.

Whilst there is no doubt that a large part of the responsibility  rests with politicians, the role of the fossil fuel industry itself and  its relationship to governments, markets and institutions, has rarely  been called into question – until now. In 2010, climate change activist  and writer Bill McKibben wrote a piece in Rolling Stone magazine where he urged everyone to ‘do the math’,  leading to the conclusion that these companies have a business plan to  burn five times the amount of carbon we can safely emit if we want to  limit the global mean temperature rise to the internationally  agreed-upon target of 2 degrees C. The latest numbers from the IPCC  claim that only 14-27% of proven carbon reserves in the world can be  burnt if we are to have a likely chance of mitigating the risks of  global warming. The problem is not only political, but one of business:  the fossil fuel industry’s business plan depends on burning fossil fuels  on a scale that will certainly endanger the stability of the climate  system, but action to limit them is curbed by fear of disrupting the  economy. Whilst this may, from a purely market-focused point of view, be  a reason for concern, it is worth remembering that there are, indeed,  as Meadows, Meadows and Randers wrote in 1972, Limits to Growth, and that all production is dependent on the ecological limitations of our common world.

McKibben’s piece of math was based on numbers from the Carbon Tracker  Initiative, which introduced the term ‘Carbon Bubble’ in a report from  2012. Carbon Tracker’s most recent report  claims energy companies have an estimated $1.1 trillion of capital  expenditure vested in projects that require an oil price of $95 per  barrel, or more, to make money. Combined with the surging costs of  investing in and developing new projects, the risk of assets becoming  ‘stranded’ is now a real threat. Most of the known fossil fuel reserves  are ‘unburnable’ in a world where climate change policies come into place. At the launch event on May 8th, UN Executive Secretary on Climate Change, Christina Figueres, said the reasons for acting on climate change are ‘piling up’, and that these risks call for a drastic and quick switch away from high-carbon to low-carbon development.

Fear of the Carbon Bubble is making many investors change their  investment policies to exclude the dirtiest fossil fuels from their  portfolios. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the largest investment fund on the planet, has even called a group of experts together to assess the viability of moving all their investments out of the fossil fuel industries. The industry has responded in a rather different manner: both Shell and Exxon Mobile  have written letters to their shareholders that can only be read as  outright dismissals of the stranded assets risk. According to both  companies, efficient policy won’t come in place in time to avoid a more  than two degrees hotter world, with Shell’s letter going as far as  calling the risk assessments ‘alarmist’. Shell instead claims that the  rise in global energy demand means fossil fuels will continue to play a  major role in the energy system into 2050 and beyond, with up to 40-50%  of the total market. This goes directly against the IPCC’s recommendations  in the Fifth Assessment Report: to maintain a likely chance of staying  below two degrees, emissions must be cut by 40-70 % by 2050 compared to  2010, and be at near zero by 2100. In other words, the big oil companies  are basing their business plan on the failure of policy to come into  place.

The IPCC report also urges a shift from short-termism to longer-term  thinking, even if this may go against our individual intuitive modes of  action in everyday life. The point is a poignant one, and highly needed  in a world steered by quarterly profit reports and an obsessive  compulsion with economic growth. It implies the need to disentangle our  collective trust in the market, and cut our ties to the fossil fuel  industry. The divestment campaigns across the university sector have  taken the second point as their core mission: If fossil fuel emissions  are to blame for global warming with all its negative consequences, then  it makes little sense for universities and social institutions to work  for a better world whilst profiting on its destruction. Divestment  campaigns are gaining traction and speed across the globe at an  unprecedented pace, and many U.S. Universities have already committed to  divestment, whilst student campaigns across campuses are demanding the  same from their home institutions. Stanford University recently pledged to divest  their endowments from coal, and the board of Trustees stated that  “moving away from coal in the investment context is a small, but  constructive, step while work continues, at Stanford and elsewhere, to  develop broadly viable sustainable energy solutions for the future.”

Campaigns are also gaining speed in the UK, where endowments are also  heavily invested in fossil fuels. According to recent research by  People and Planet, 350.org and Platform London in a report called Knowledge and Power: Fossil Fuel Universities, UK  universities have between £1.9 billion and £5.2 billion of their  combined investment wealth of £62.2 billion in fossil fuels. If split  between the student population, this amounts to £2,083 for every student  in the UK. No wonder, then, that divestment campaigns are growing, and  students increasingly demanding their money be put into cleaner  investments and aligned with a low-carbon and sustainable future.

The University of Cambridge is amongst the wealthiest in Europe with  its £5 billion endowment, yet its investment policies contain no ethical  guidelines that would exclude fossil fuel companies or other morally  problematic industries. In November 2013 the Ethical Affairs team  submitted a resolution that was passed by the Cambridge University  Students’ Union, voting to pressure the “University and its colleges  to explicitly commit to pursuing low-carbon assets and withdraw their  investments from companies whose main business is the extraction and/or  production of fossil fuels.” With the National Union of Students, NUS,  recently passing a resolution for divestment, there is reason to believe  the campaign will pick up speed in near future. Divestment may not  change the structure of the financial world, but opens a contentious  issue for debate, reflection, and rethinking. If it does not serve to  bankrupt the industry, it can, as Bill McKibben argues, “begin to politically and morally bankrupt them,  and their kin, so they don’t exert such powerful control over our  political bodies.” Divestment, in this view, disentangles  taken-for-granted relations between profit, finance and energy systems,  and offers an escape from the short-termism that locks the system in the  wrong direction.

Endowments aside, there is another and more direct link between  universities and the fossil fuel industry: sponsorship and donations.  Companies such as Shell and BP sponsor research programmes with billions  of pounds each year. They also sponsor lectureships, lecture halls,  buildings and events, getting their name associated with posts such as  ‘The BP Institute’, ‘The Shell Geoscience Laboratory’, or the ‘BP Chair  of Energy and Sustainability’. The University of Cambridge is the  recipient of the largest grant ever received from an oil and gas company  by a UK institution, after it accepted a £23.1 million endowment to  fund the BP Institute in 2000. Since then, sponsorships have increased exponentially.  The 2012 contract between Shell and the University of Oxford sparked  several protests and caused much disagreement including a letter from  students, academics and alumni to the Guardian, calling Shell an ‘inappropriate’ choice  to fund the Earth Sciences Laboratory. Their concern is with the  influence Shell exerts on the research agenda whilst at the very same  university, top climate scientists say most of the known oil, coal and  gas must remain in the ground. At the University of Cambridge, BP is  currently funding the ‘BP Foreseer Project’, which aims to predict  future resource pathways, and similar relations exist across the UK  University Sector. A report from 2003 shows how research through the universities is significantly cheaper  than in-house research, gives the companies access to pools of future  employees, and happens in collaboration with the government and with  taxpayer’s money. With the fossil fuel industry not only invested in  through endowments, but directly funding research, they ask to what  extent such relations prolong dependency on fossil fuels and buys the  companies a credibility they do not deserve.

The dissonance, then, stretches from governments through financial  markets to the university sector. The actuality and acuteness of climate  change is no longer controversial, nor the need for fossil fuels to  largely remain in the ground. Yet how to make the transition to clean  and sustainable energy is far from clear. Whilst waiting for political  will and policies to set things right, business as usual and continued  fossil fuel extraction is not an option for a sustainable future. Both  divestment from the fossil fuel industry and a disentanglement of  universities from business interests are powerful tools for change, and  whilst they will not solve the crisis in themselves, they will help  channel finances, bright minds and research programmes into the  renewable sector, and put an end to the university being reduced to a  training ground for the fossil fuel industry. Paying closer attention to  the relationship between technologies and politics is an important step  in this process.


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Ragnhild Freng Dale