By David Callaway, Callaway Climate Insights
By Abby Weiss
(Abby Weiss is a journalism major at Syracuse University, has served as the Digital Managing Editor for The Daily Orange and a as reporter for InsideClimate News.)
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (Callaway Climate Insights) — In 2021, a decade after the first student divestment campaign launched at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, a series of big-name universities, including Harvard University and the University of Michigan, made some type of commitment to clean their investment portfolios of fossil fuel holdings, marking last year as what some experts would call a tipping point for fossil-fuel divestment.
But student activists want more in 2022, including regular disclosure of progress, elimination of fossil fuel research funding and stricter carbon neutrality goals.
“It’s fundamentally bizarre that institutions of higher education are effectively lending out their own credibility to companies that, time and again, have just shown that they have no interest in being part of a just energy transition or not taking it seriously enough,” said Ilana Cohen, a member of Harvard University’s class of 2023.
Cohen, an organizer of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, which successfully convinced Harvard to fully divest in September, said she thinks 2022 will be the year the divestment movement moves to the next level. This means pushing administrators to reinvest in businesses that support frontline communities most impacted by the climate crisis and to dismantle other ties to the industry, including allowing fossil fuel companies to fund research.
Harvard University, which has the largest endowment of any university, announced that it will allow its investments in the fossil fuel industry to expire and will not form any future partnerships with private equity funds in the fossil fuel industry. Harvard declined an interview with Callaway Climate Insights.
In total, as of October 2021, roughly 1,500 institutions worldwide have pledged to divest as much as $39.2 trillion in fossil fuel assets, a number that tops the annual GDP of China and the U.S. combined. Nearly 15% of that number are educational institutions, the second largest group behind faith-based organizations, according to the Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Commitments Database.
Cohen said she and Fossil Fuel Divest activists want Harvard to strip the fossil fuel industry’s influence and funding of its curriculum. For example, Shell (SHEL) funds climate economics research and ExxonMobil (XOM) is listed as a supporter for corporate social responsibility initiatives.
“When fossil fuel companies are funding research at Harvard’s campus, they’re doing it with a very clear agenda,” she said. “It’s fundamentally problematic that the university is allowing these companies which we know have records of deceiving the public, which are not aligned with the Paris Agreement, which are clearly at odds with Harvard’s own espoused climate-action commitments, to have that rule in the production of knowledge that goes on to shape public policy that affects all of our futures.”
Cohen said she and Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard activists will also push officials to disclose Harvard’s fossil-free portfolio and provide a more expedited timeline on when Harvard’s divestment is going to happen.
Adam Aron, a University of California San Diego professor and member of USCSD Green New Deal, also demands a full listing of investments and more progress updates from the University of California system, to ensure UC doesn’t reinvest. The UC system announced in June 2020 that it has completely divested from fossil fuels, having sold $1 billion in assets from all its investment portfolios.
But the University of California confirmed to Callaway Climate Insights that it instead de-risked fossil fuels, meaning the removal of stocks and bonds from fossil fuel companies may be temporary, not permanent.
The University of California has 10 campuses, 280,000 students, 227,000 faculty and staff, with 2 million alumni.
Aron said without full transparency, he cannot be sure whether or not UC will reinvest. Aron wants UC to pledge to make a declaration to permanently divest from fossil fuels.
“I don’t think it’s done, even if much of the wider world thinks, ‘Hey, UC has divested.’”
He said heading into 2022, UC should focus on cutting off ties with banks and insurers that are heavily implicated in fossil-fuel extraction. He said this move may be more impactful to America’s use of fossil fuels than the stocks and bonds business.
“I don’t think there’s anything symbolic about the banks, right? If the University of California would announce that it is no longer going to use banks that are involved in fossil-fuel extraction, it’s going to go with other banks that aren’t, with credit unions. And that happens, you know, enough around the country, you can bet that the banks will change their tune pretty quickly and stop financing fossil fuel extraction.”
Eric Halgren, a UCSD professor and Academic Senate member, said the organization’s members are asking UC to give an accounting yearly of its stocks and bonds, both public and private, as well as carbon reserves and carbon exploitation.
Another goal is to make climate education part of the general curriculum, which he believes will be achieved within a year and will also inspire more students to become climate activists. The movement will also work towards the electrification of University of California’s 10 campuses.
“The University of California is an enormous institution with an enormous number of employees and students. And we have big campuses and we burn a lot of methane. So, we want to make it carbon free,” he said.
Electrify, don’t just divest
Robert Pollin, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and founding co-director of its Political Economy Research Institute, said that electrifying campuses should be the focus of universities, not divestment.
While he supports the spirit of the divestment movement, these commitments have minute impact in the path to net zero emissions because private equity firms and hedge funds will buy and profit off those assets. Universities can make more of an impact by pledging to stop burning fossil fuels altogether rather than sell their stocks, he said.
“We’re not really interested in universities divesting from fossil fuels, we’re interested in ending that fossil fuel as a source of energy,” he said. “What we really need to do is see institutions that have ethical motivations to just stop buying fossil fuels, and do it as quickly as possible.”
Major universities have set goals to make their endowment carbon neutral. University of Michigan pledged to eliminate direct, on-campus (Scope 1) emissions by 2040 and achieve net-zero purchased power (Scope 2) emissions by 2025.
Jonathan Morris, a PhD candidate at University of Michigan and former organizer of the Climate Action Movement, said the movement wants the university to aim for carbon neutrality by 2030 instead of 2040 to coincide with the city of Ann Arbor, where it is located. He said the university’s CO₂ emissions targets should be stricter than the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change’s goal of 50% reduction by 2030.
“[University of Michigan] has one of the biggest endowments. We should be exceeding that curve and doing it as fast as possible, faster than other institutions to sort of show them what’s possible, and to show others that we’re actually taking it seriously,” he said.
Activists also see the divestment movement growing stronger in the coming years, where administrators begin to listen to their students more closely than they do with CEOs of fossil fuel companies.
Connor Chung, a junior at Harvard and Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard organizer, said their victory in 2021 was a vindication for student activists who spent a decade telling Harvard that these fossil fuel investments are not only immoral, but financially imprudent.
“Students predicted the market trends that Harvard did not. And as a result, eventually, as a result of this activism, eventually Harvard had to move,” he said.
One of the obstacles to further divestment is the fact that oil prices have soared in recent months as global economies have come out of the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia continues to invade Ukraine.
As of early Tuesday, the front-month contract for West Texas Intermediate Crude futures was trading at $102.31.
Universities may be hesitant to sell winning and money-making assets, but reports show that in the long-run divestment from these companies is better business. A decade ago, the energy sector made up 15% of S&P 500. As of April 2020, that number has lowered to 3%.
BlackRock (BLK), the world’s largest asset manager, also said in its 2021 report that “no investors found negative performance from [fossil fuel] divestment; rather neutral to slightly positive results.”
“Fossil fuels are already experiencing significant long term losses in the market. And there’s every reason to think that trend will continue in the long run,” Chung said.