Divesting from fossil fuels – part of a low carbon culture for #Manchester

We need a low carbon culture (and we need you to help define it first).

And part of a low carbon culture is going to be divesting from fossil fuel companies.  The University of Manchester, which hopes to have global weight, could – if it chose – lead by example (and follow the example of Glasgow, Stanford etc).  There’s a campaign group trying to get them to do just that.

Divestment at the University of Manchester: why are we doing this?

Definition: “DIVESTMENT” is the reduction of some kind of asset for financial, ethical, or political objectives.

Climate change – the scientific context

Climate change, caused by emissions of greenhouse gases from burning oil, gas and coal, threatens the lives and livelihoods of billions of people around the world. Climate change directly causes the deaths of over 400,000 people every year, with 98% of these deaths in developing countries [1]. Extreme weather events — the floods, droughts, hurricanes, melting icecaps and wildfires we’ve seen in recent years — are increasing in frequency, duration, size and intensity as we heat up our planet [2]. Estimates vary but suggest that by the end of the century global temperatures will have increased by 4-6°C, making large swathes of the planet uninhabitable and triggering mass migration as people fight for declining resources [3]. Clearly climate change is no longer a future threat, it’s a clear and present danger: we’re calling for widespread divestment from the fossil fuel industry in order to prevent this from happening, to send a message for change.

Greenwashing by fossil fuel companies

Shell’s human rights and environmental abuses are well documented. In the Niger Delta, it is estimated that the company burns excess gas from oil wells (a process known as “gas flaring”) with a volume of 2.5 billion cubic feet, equivalent to 40% of all Africa’s natural gas consumption in 2001, every day [4]. Every single day. The toxins released in this process adversely affect the lives and livelihoods of communities in the NIger Delta, leading to increased risk of premature deaths, child respiratory illnesses, asthma and cancer [4]. Companies such as Shell show blatant disregard for people and the environment in their industrial practices, whilst simultaneously bombarding people with messaging to suggest their organisation has environmental and social credibility. This “greenwash” overstates a company’s eco-credentials manipulating the public into having a more positive attitude toward them, which further encourages inaction and disengages people from the issue. A recent advert said “Tackling climate change and providing fuel for a growing population seems like an impossible problem, but at Shell we try to think creatively”, alongside a diagram of a human brain, divided into sections labelled “fuel from algae”, “fuel from straw”, “fuel from woodchips”, “hydrogen fuels”, “wind farm”, “gas to liquids” and “coal gasification”, deliberately diverting attention from the vast majority of Shell’s business in normal fossil fuel production, with only one token Shell wind farm currently in operation [5]. Relationships with companies like these are immoral and only serve to maintain the social licence which these companies require to operate unimpeded from scrutiny.

A danger to democracy

All the while, fossil fuel companies continue to lobby for watered-down regulation, deception and inaction on the climate change issue, much as the tobacco industry did when the adverse health effects of smoking became apparent [6]. According to an Oxfam report last week the fossil fuel industry spent $213 million lobbying US and EU decision makers last year whilst governments globally continue to prop up this tired industry with $1.9 trillion in subsidies [3]. “Climate denying” think tanks exist to further spread confusion funded by the fossil fuel industry and hedge funds which have a serious financial interest in the continued exploitation of fossil fuels. Billionaire oil tycoons the Koch Brothers (who own an oil company which is the second largest private company in America) have spent $67 million on hundreds of climate-denying front groups and think tanks that exist to create the perception of debate on the issue in the public sphere while expert climate scientists are unified in their call for more action to prevent disaster [7]. Perhaps the most prominent such think tank in the UK is the Global Warming Policy Foundation set up to combat the “extremely damaging and harmful policies” of the government in tackling climate change[8], a group which leading NASA climate scientist James Hansen describes as “one link in a devious manipulation of public opinion [regarding climate change]” [9].

The carbon bubble – a risky investment

We now know that at least two-thirds of fossil fuel companies’ known reserves will have to remain underground if the world is to meet existing internationally agreed targets, such as avoiding the threshold of 2°C for “dangerous” climate change – yet they continue to investigate new energy-intensive and uneconomic sources such as Arctic fuel and fracking. Experts warn this ‘carbon bubble’ could lead to stranded assets worth trillions and plunge the world into another financial crisis if left unaddressed [10]. The University of Manchester in 2012 had over 1.7 million shares in fossil fuel companies including 738,166 in BP PLC alone [11]. Between June and October this year BP’s shares have fallen by more than 18% [12]. To give you an idea, if the University still has around 700,000 shares in BP then the University endowment has lost over £650,000 in value in the last three months, equivalent to 73 students’ tuition fees gone. These are incredibly volatile investments and it is fundamentally irresponsible for the University to invest in BP and other fossil fuel companies for economic reasons.

What can we do?

So these companies are profiting from inaction on climate change, poisoning the planet and local communities to protect their profits, manipulating governments and democracy in order to maintain the completely unsustainable status quo and are also a really volatile investment. Seems like a pretty bad idea giving these people our money, so what are we going to do to stop this?

Around the UK through endowments and other investment higher education institutions have £5.2 billion tied up in the fossil fuel industry [13]. Targeting this and other ties with the industry is a great way to remove the power and influence that fossil fuel companies have in society. There are strong and pervasive links between The University of Manchester and the fossil fuel industry, all designed to legitimise their activity.

For example, in 2012 BP announced it was opening a £64 million research centre at The University of Manchester to “help its search for oil into deeper and more challenging environments”; despite existing reserves being more than enough to destroy the planet [14]. Manchester’s website says “BP’s alliance with The University of Manchester … enables BP to access the University’s world-class executive education, high-quality research facilities and its undergraduate talent pool” [15] and it has trained 600 BP staff at Manchester’s “BP Projects and Engineering College” [16]. For anyone who has ever been to one of our Careers fairs and seen their stand or looked on any notice board in our Engineering & Physical Science faculty and seen their ever-present graduate recruitment posters, the institutional ties with BP are clear. The University of Manchester also has BP’s chief scientist on its Board of Governors, the group which will have the final say over whether to divest or not [17]. Well played BP.

Shell and BP both sponsored Manchester’s School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences postgraduate conference in 2012. Just £1000 from Shell and £500 from BP [18] ensured that every participant of the conference got a BP-branded goody bag with a Shell-branded screwdriver inside along with other conference merchandise.

With an endowment value of £154 million [19] (the UK’s 4th largest), despite Manchester having an ethical investment policy, according to the 2013 Green League it has not taken any divestment actions in line with this policy [20]. This policy specifically states that  “the University […] will use its influence in an effort to reduce and, ideally, eliminate, irresponsible corporate behaviour leading to … environmental degradation and human rights violations” [21].


We are campaigning for the University to uphold this policy and pledge to:

  1. Move UoM’s money

– immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies

– screen for and exclude the fossil fuel industry from the UoM investment portfolio

– divest from the fossil fuel industry and shift funds to lower risk, ethical investments within 5 years

  1. Stop the greenwash

– publish full details of the UoM’s financial and other ties to the fossil fuel industry

– stop giving out honorary degrees to fossil fuel industry CEOs

– stop accepting sponsorship and advertising from fossil fuel companies

  1. Support a clean energy future for all

– provide students with ethical careers advice and opportunities

– refocus research & expertise on climate solutions and phase out climate-damaging fossil fuel research

– demand more research funding for renewables from fossil fuel companies and government


We are calling for immediate action to reduce links with the industry and an end to further research contracts once existing agreements are finished. We’re not calling for anything radical, just for the necessary transition away from fossil fuels to begin as soon as possible. It’s time for The University of Manchester to realise how incompatible fossil fuel investments are with a safe and sustainable future for the planet, it’s time to take meaningful action and to go Fossil Free. We will be using this blog and our Facebook page to update you on the campaign as it happens, we’ve got plenty in the pipeline… (b’dum tsch). If you’re already convinced it’s time for them to divest then sign our petition below.

Petition: bit.ly/fossilfreemcr

Page: facebook.com/fossilfreemcr

[1] Dara International, “Climate Vulnerability Monitor”, 2012.


[2] Friends of the Earth, “Extreme weather events & climate change”, September 2013.


[3] Oxfam, “Food, fossils and filthy finance”, 17 October 2014.


[4] Friends of the Earth, “Gas Flaring in Nigeria: a human rights, environmental and economic monstrosity”, June 2005.


[5] George Monbiot, “Shell’s game: why good people do bad things”, 6th January 2009.


[6] Global Policy website, “Global warming & the energy corporations”, 12th July 1996.


[7] Greenpeace USA, “Koch Industries: secretly funding the climate denial machine”.


[8] BBC News, “Ed Miliband clashes with Lord Lawson on global warming”, 6th December 2009.


[9] The Guardian, “Michael Hintze revealed as funder of Lord Lawson’s climate thinktank”, 27th March 2012.


[10] The Guardian, “Climate bubble will plunge the world into another financial crisis”, 19th April 2013.


[11] The Mancunion, “Greens deputy leader calls University’s investment in ‘big oil’ “completely irresponsible”.“ 5th March 2012.


[12] BP share charts, calculation made between 24th June and 17th October 2014.


[13] People & Planet, “Knowledge and power: fossil fuel universities”, October 2013.


[14] The Daily Telegraph, “BP Invests in UK research to help it drill deeper”, 7th August 2012.


[15] The University of Manchester, “Manchester Energy Global Partnerships” website.


[16] The University of Manchester, “Business Engagement Case Study: BP”.


[17] Dr Angela Strank, Board of Governors, University of Manchester website.


[18] Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Conference Fund 2012 Final Review Report.


[19] The University of Manchester, ‘Financial Statements for Year Ended 31 July 2011’.


[20] People & Planet, ‘Green League 2013’ website.


[21] The University of Manchester, ‘Policy for Socially Responsible Investment’



About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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