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Campus occupation results in silence from the University on policy changes

ByRachel Whitford

Apr 19, 2016

Activist group People and Planet’s occupation of The University of Edinburgh’s Charles Stewart House last week has resulted in silence from University officials, with a refusal to make a statement on divestment from fossil fuel companies.

The week-long occupation, staged by the Edinburgh branch of People and Planet’s divestment campaign, aimed to put pressure on the University to fully divest from fossil fuel companies and to commit to a firm non-reinvestment stance for the future.

Despite the occupation attracting attention from prominent politicians and national media outlets, the University has failed to release a public statement on plans to divest further from the oil and gas companies which they currently still invest in.

An occupation of Old College last week saw three activists lock themselves to the front gates of the building in a demand for a public apology from University of Edinburgh Principle, Tim O’Shea, for failing to represent the views of the University’s student population.

A representative from People and Planet told The Student that they hoped that the support they received from the student body and leading politicians, as well as national media coverage, would put pressure on the University to divest further.

“The occupation also received warm endorsements from notable politicians, including Patrick Harvie, Alison Johnstone and Maggie Chapman.

“It is our hope that this increases public pressure on the University to ensure the movement towards full divestment continues,” the representative said.

However the spokesperson went on to say that inaction by the University had forced the group to exert more pressure for divestment, telling The Student: “We are now reluctantly at a stage of taking direct action against the University, as opposed to simply lobbying as before.

“Although we are in the process of engaging the University about finding a solution regarding divestment, this has been relatively unproductive.”

Previous campaigns by the group over the past five years resulted in the University withdrawing £2.5 million worth of investments in coal and tar sands companies last year as part of its ‘Responsible Investment’ policy.

The Responsible Investment policy has also recently seen the University declare full divestment from arms companies, with promises not to invest in them in the future, following pressure from activist groups.

Speaking to The Student, Dave Gorman, Director of the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability at The University of Edinburgh, said that fossil fuels were still an important part of the energy industry and that sustainable alternatives were not available for every sector of society.

“As far as fossil fuels are concerned, the University acknowledges that alternatives do not exist in every circumstance as some aspects of modern society – such as the manufacture of steel, fertilisers and global travel – still depend on fossil fuels.

“We are clear that a transition needs to happen but many bodies agree that for the moment, fossil fuels remain a vital component of the energy system,” Gorman told The Student.

He added that the University was making “significant decisions and investments” in an attempt to reduce their impact on climate change, having secured over £50 million pounds worth of funding to work on climate science, emissions mitigation and sustainable solutions.

“I believe that our long-term approach has been effective. Independent analysis suggests that the carbon intensity of our direct investments has halved over the last 3 years and fallen by almost 90 per cent since 2008.

“We have decided to take action which, according to the available evidence, will likely have the biggest impact on future carbon emissions.” Gorman concluded.

However, People and Planet have stated that they want to see the University’s divestment go even further, as the institution’s portfolio still includes two oil and gas companies, Apache and EOG, and that these investments do not support the views of the student body.

People and Planet also added that they believed that University of Edinburgh was refusing to fully divest from fossil fuel companies and make a statement against the industry because they did not want to undermine departments within the University that work with fossil fuels.

According to their spokesperson, “the University administration’s motivation behind this is to avoid alienating schools and departments that work directly with the fossil fuel industry by avoiding making a statement which is seen to de-legitimise the entire industry.

“They may also fear that if they make these public commitments now, they will be perceived as being in response to pressure from student groups.”

Image credit: Jacob Forsyth-Davis

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