Why UCT should drop fossil fuels - News | 110% Green

Why UCT should drop fossil fuels

26 May 2016
Kirtanya Lutchminarayan and David Le Page

Fossil Free UCT is a campaign at the University of Cape Town that is supported by many students, staff and alumni. The campaign brings to attention the urgency to act against climate change, by urging the university to withdraw its investments in fossil fuels, and reinvest in clean, renewable energy. Fossil Free UCT is a campaign of Fossil Free South Africa, and inspired by the international divestment campaign started by global organisation 350.org.

Through face-to-face engagement with university officials, written letters, fundraising initiatives and seminars, the issue of fossil fuel divestment has frequently been brought to the university’s attention since November 2013.

At the most recent seminar at UCT on the issue in May 2016 (see it on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JouWf5v9Jw), various perspectives on divestment were shared by a diverse panel.

The student perspective was that UCT should be transparent about its investments and accountable, for as a signatory to a number of ‘green declarations’ such as the Talloires Declaration, and as an institution that is researching the dangers of climate change, it makes no sense for the university to continue investing in fossil fuels.

The seminar audience was also reminded that Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called on the university to divest, a call that would seem to be consistent with the views of university Chancellor Graca Machel on climate change.

A somewhat opposing view that was raised by academics is that divestment is ‘too simple’ and that some form of shareholder activism is preferable to divestment. However, this view ignores the fact that there is little or no evidence that shareholder activism has ever persuaded big companies to make major changes to their business models. Fossil Free UCT does see some value in shareholder activism, but we think it must be combined with a credible and urgent threat of divestment.

Moving Forward

In response to the issues raised by Fossil Free UCT, UCT has committed itself to developing some form of ethical or responsible investing policy. That policy is likely to include a range of new and interesting considerations. Whilst these are not finalised, they may include:

• Subscribing to the UN Principles for Responsible Investment

• Committing to transparency about UCT’s various investments

• Making the process of investment decisions more inclusive and transparent (involving more stakeholders from the university community)

• Including issues of sustainability in investment decision making

• Disclosing the university's carbon footprint

• Becoming more active as an engaged shareholder – i.e., asking investee companies to account for the ethical and environmental consequences of their business practices

We agree that the university should practice what it preaches, and be looking very closely into opportunities for reducing its own carbon footprint further, and for investment opportunities in renewable energy. However, divestment need not wait until these processes are complete. 

Those students who support the Fossil Free UCT campaign believe that it is important for UCT to consider ethical, socially responsible and sustainable ways of investing. The divestment campaign is creating much-needed dialogue around where the university invests its money and why, as well as what values UCT is prioritising through its investments.