Divestment: fuel for student activism.

Who said student activism is dead?

I remember being in primary school, and learning for the first time about the horrific damage wreaked upon the planet in our endless quest for fuel and power. I was around nine years old, and my teacher showed photographs (ah, the days of chalkboards and overhead projectors) of environmental carnage: ravaged rainforests, dusty quarries, belching chimneys and poisoned oceans, thick and black and sticky with oil. We learnt about global warming, and climate change – how countries will suffer in terms of erratic weather and flooding, and how the Arctic was melting, slowly but surely. I listened to my teacher, stared at the photographs, and vowed to do what I could to protect the environment. I went home that day with the three ‘rs’ on my lips.

It had hit home then, that humans were slowly poisoning and destroying the world simply to make profits. I suppose I had always known that the heat in our house came from oil, which had to be drilled from the ground. I knew that other family members used oil, and my parents had grown up in coal households. I just was never truly aware of the damage caused by our dependency on fossil fuels.

Growing up, I probably plagued my family with my constant nagging about the importance of recycling, the need to reuse items such as paper, boxes and bags and the quest to reduce what we bought and used. We happily installed insulation in our roofspace and loft to reduce our oil consumption, and jumped on the energy-efficient lightbulbs. But we cannot deny that we still rely on oil, for all that we try to use it sparingly.

But at least we realise the need to reduce our consumption. At least we understand the importance of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. We recognise that renewable energy is cleaner, and more beneficial to the environment. Myself, and my family are not the only ones who understand this.

A pity, then, that my university apparently does not. A pity that it continues to benefit financially from investing in fossil fuels.

My university has accepted around £13,207 in donations from BP and Exxon Mobil in the past five years, according to research conducted by Greenpeace. This may not seem like a vast sum, but in my eyes it is £13,207 too much. For a university which is actively promoting ‘going green’ on campus – for example installing bikes for hire, ensuring waste can be categorised to assist in recycling and urging students to consider their printing purchases – it sadly appears to be contradicting itself in terms of its investment options. You cannot encourage staff and students alike to go green, whilst investing in and accepting donations from the fossil fuel industry. Moreover, consider this scenario: student scientists researching the serious effects of climate change, in a university which receives money from fossil fuel companies. The irony.

Scientific reports illustrate how the fossil fuel industry has approximately five times more carbon in their reserves than what we can actually burn, and still manage to restrict global warming to below 2°C.  Five times more. That’s a staggering statistic, and one which should alarm us all. Climate change is a real, true threat, and yet regardless of the evidence around us of its consequences, we still persist in utilising the earth’s resources for our own benefit and (financial) interests. Investing in fossil fuels may be profitable, but such a profit comes with a price which will extract a heavy debt in the future.

Divestment the answer. The greater the scale of divestment, the greater the pressure to abandon fossil fuels as energy sources. But QUB has thus far refused to consider divestment. It is a sad case of affairs when a highly-regarded university with renowned research capabilities cannot see the non-refutable evidence before it.

But there are students will do their utmost to make divestment at QUB a reality. And today they made their voices heard in a wonderful display of student activism.

Fossil Free QUB  is a group of like-minded individuals, comprising students, staff and alumni who are committed to encouraging QUB to withdraw all investments from fossil fuel corporations, and to also establish and follow a renewable energy agenda on campus. In their own words:

‘…we are proud to fight to ensure that Queen’s University leads by example, as a progressive institution of cultural and social importance to Belfast and Northern Ireland generally, and plays its part in securing a safe, clean and sustainable future for us all.’

Fossil Free QUB in the local link in a global campaign chain. The global movement for fossil fuel divestment is actually one of the fastest growing grassroots campaigns. It has already met with success – in September 2014, $50 billion was the total amount institutions across the planet had divested from fossil fuel corporations. By September 2015, the impressive figure stood at $2.5 trillion.

Within the context of university divestment in the British Isles, Fossil Fuel QUB is not alone, either. They were inspired by the success of Scottish activists: after a long campaign, in 2014 Glasgow University became the first academic institution in Europe to divest from the fossil fuel industry, ultimately removing some £18m in shares and endowments into other funds. The Glaswegian activists arrived in Belfast to discuss their activism at QUB, and sparked the proverbial flame. The campaign for divestment at QUB had begun.

I was in America at the time (and one of my modules happened to be US Environmental Law, funnily enough) but I watched the embers of activism burst into flame from afar, and with avid interest. It was obviously the beginning of a -as it swiftly becoming evident – long battle.

Fossil Free QUB had to firstly undergo organisation, and then the arduous task of tracking down and analysing public data pertaining to QUB investment options. Yet, this public data is very limited, hence the submission of a Freedom of Information request. This was rejected by the university, but an appeal process was undertaken. Facilitated by the Information Commissioners Office, and lasting almost 10 months, the activists were successful in obtaining information which revealed significant insights into investment options.

Next came the lengthy wait to be recognised by the university. During this time, the group sought the acceptance of the student body on campus. A referendum was organised, framed around the question, ‘Should QUB divest from fossil fuels?’ I remember watching the vibrant and informed campaign, and I realised the sincerity of the group, given their dedicated presence on campus. On the 13th of October 2015, 827 of the student body voted. 83.2% (688 students) voted in favour of the referendum, and I am happy to say I was one of those students. Whilst we did not have the required quorum, it was still a statement of intent from students. Sadly, this referendum, this exercise in democracy was not recognised by the university.

The following day, Fossil Free QUB submitted a 47 page academic proposal on the economic and ethical imperatives behind fossil fuel divestment to the Investment Committee. This paper was however ignored. The university proposed a resolution: QUB will review its ethical investment policy. This however is a process which will last between six to nine months. The University reaffirmed its position that indirect investments in fossil fuels absolved them of all moral responsibility, and thus considered the matter closed.

Spoiler alert: the matter isn’t closed.

Fossil Free QUB 1

Today, Fossil Free QUB reinforced the fact that student activism isn’t dead. They utilised their right to protest, in a dignified and respectful manner.

The group occupied a room reserved for the QUB Senate meeting. After requesting the opportunity to discuss their concerns with QUB investments with the Senate, seeking an affirmation that there will be a review of ethical investment policy, the group refused to move when demanded to do so after their requests were declined. Eventually, the Senate decided to hold their meeting elsewhere – only to be followed by the group and their supporters to another building. It was here that the students met with a heavy security presence – but determined students are not swayed easily. The group has promised this will not be the last occupation, should QUB continue to invest in fossil fuel corporations.

Frustratingly, the local bus service conspired against me and thus I could not be present on campus to offer my support. But this is an important struggle, and a worthy campaign which is not merely confined to Northern Ireland, or even Europe. This is an issue on a global scale. Climate change is a key issue which urgently needs addressed, and I am only too willing to lend my voice to the battle.

My own thoughts on the subject of QUB divestment? I believe that this is the time for the university I admire and love to be on the right side of history. The global movement for divestment has already met with success, and this is a growing movement. Surely it is only right for my university to join this global movement. It is time to divest from fossil fuel corporations, and to support a clean-energy future. Promote sustainability not only on campus to students, but through financial aspects, too. Furthermore, to invest in fossil fuels is essentially to invest in the decline of the health of not only the planet, but of global citizens. It is to deprive future generations of a clean, flourishing planet. It is to simply pass on the burden of tackling climate change to another generation, because it is not in your (financial) interests to do so now. And this I find unacceptable.

There is also a global justice/human rights element. Persistant QUB fossil fuel investment challenges the university’s commitment to human rights and dignity. Fossil fuel extraction, production and use results in death and illness every year, notably in poorer, deprived regions. Climate change threatens the enjoyment of fundamental human rights: the right to a home, to a family, – the very right to life can be threatened, considering the increase in droughts, famine, flooding and environment destruction. Given that the effects of climate change are unfairly spread – poorer countries tend to suffer the effects – QUB should not be profiting from the deprivation of others. To quote Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson:

“Climate change is a matter of justice. The richest countries caused the problem, but it is the world’s poorest who are already suffering from its effects.”

A low-carbon future therefore is a safe, clean and promising future for all. QUB has the option, and the authority to help create that future. So-called ‘indirect investment’ is still investment. It does not absolve moral responsibility.

To paraphrase The Smiths: carbon assets are dead, boys. And it’s so lonely on a limb, when you persist in fossil fuel investment.


Interested in the Fossil Free QUB campaign? Why not read about their campaign thus far, visit their Twitter  and check out their Facebook page?

Also: why not sign this petition, ‘SET QUB FOSSIL FUEL FREE‘? 


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