Greenwashing the past or rightfully celebrating achievements?

The University divests from fossil fuels after years of student pressure

As of February 2021, the University of Edinburgh’s direct investment in fossil fuel companies is zero. The Student spoke to the student activists who helped make this happen to get their perspective on how we got here.

First, some context. The journey to divestment began in 2002 after students and MPs demanded the University implements an ethical investment policy and (among other things) stops investing into companies that heavily pollute the environment. Divesting from fossil fuels makes sense for both environmental and economic reasons, because fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal not only harm the planet and its inhabitants, but they are also at risk of being financially overvalued for these same reasons.

With the University taking virtually no tangible steps to divestment, students started campaigning heavily in 2011 and demanded a whole overhaul and divestment from fossil fuel companies.  At that time, the University held nearly £9m of investments in oil, gas and coal extraction and over £5m in fossil fuel service companies. 

During a subsequent decade of student protests, petitions and lobbying, the University gradually withdrew its investments, first from coal and tar sands and later from all remaining direct and pooled investments in fossil fuels including oil and gas. According to a recent announcement, “the University has now completed its divestment from fossil fuels, marking a significant milestone in both our journey to become carbon neutral by 2040 and our Strategy 2030 commitment to social and civic responsibility.”

While this is a great accomplishment, the activists who helped make this happen take issue with the way it is being presented, and it’s not hard to see why. First, because it isn’t entirely accurate, and second, because the University didn’t really give proper credit to those who successfully lobbied them to enact these changes.

The main group involved in campaigning for the divestment has been People and Planet Edinburgh (P&P), a local branch of the UK’s largest network taking action for environmental and social justice both on and off campus. 

They have thoroughly researched the area and made many Freedom of Information requests to the University to find out more about their investments, circulated petitions, organised protests, engaged in direct action including an occupation of Charles Stewart House in 2015, lobbied and negotiated with various groups within the University management.

A current member of P&P, Maddie, told The Student: “I definitely think that it’s important to recognise that this divestment was largely achieved by student activists from People and Planet Edinburgh and also due to the added pressure of the divestment campaigns that were going on at other unis during that time. I think direct action such as the occupation was one of the main factors.”

Paula Lacey, who was President of P&P in 2018/19, added: “In February 2018, just before the UCU strikes, the University announced a commitment to “full divestment”, meaning withdrawing direct holdings in oil and gas, which they completed a few years ago. This was a direct result of student pressure, both by my group and our predecessors, a narrative which was completely left out of the original divestment announcement in 2018 and was only acknowledged in the recent announcement.”

In a video message announcing the divestment, Principal and Vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson acknowledged the involvement of students in the process, saying: “Our students have played a significant part in the University completing this step,” and, “our fossil fuel review group, which provided the recommendations to the University’s investment committee, included student representatives.” 

This statement comes in the form of a voiceover against the backdrop of slideshow images of students in lab coats, posing next to science equipment, and walking happily around campus. It makes sense to use images like these instead of, for example, photos from the occupation or the various protests against the University’s inaction over the years. 

However, it is not an accurate representation of the type of student involvement that actually took place and that pressured the University to divest. It’s a little bit like those food commercials that don’t use actual food, because fake food is prettier and therefore more useful for the purpose of marketing. It can be considered problematic to only acknowledge the more palatable, within-the-system side of student involvement in the University’s decision making, because it is profoundly misleading.

Moreover, all the activists we spoke to expressed concern at the University using this achievement for their own publicity and as a way to market itself as “the pinnacle of environmental friendliness,” as described by Paula Lacey, “because it’s just not the truth.”

Kirsty Haigh, who used to be an active member of P&P and participated in the ten-day occupation in 2015, said: “It is farcical that the University now try to greenwash their history and pretend they were [in the past] on board with divestment from fossil fuels. The University of Edinburgh should be ashamed that it has taken over a decade of students relentlessly campaigning before they have finally pulled their final direct investments in fossil fuels. While they have twiddled their thumbs, the climate change they have been funding has been wreaking havoc across the planet.”

Indeed, for People and Planet, the fight against fossil fuel companies and the University’s involvement with them is far from over.

They said in a statement that “if the University wishes to make a sincere commitment to tackling climate change then divestment must be backed up with action to cut the remaining ties with the fossil fuel industry.” Maddie further explained that “the main issue now is that although the uni has divested from its direct investments in fossil fuels, the uni still currently has indirect investments. So for example they invest in investment companies that then go and invest in fossil fuels.”

Paula Lacey, who ran for VP Community in the recent EUSA elections and is advocating for further divestment as well as the creation of an ethical banking policy, said: “It is disingenuous and blatant greenwashing for the university to market itself as ‘fully divested’. The University’s indirect holdings are still tied up in fossil fuels, as are its pension fund, and the university banks with Barclays, a notorious funder of the climate crisis. Divesting direct holdings was a valuable first step, but there is still a long way to go.”

It can be tricky to celebrate legitimate wins while also not ignoring its shortcomings and wider context. But as long as we also celebrate the ways that we got here and the people who helped make it happen, it can serve as a great inspiration for further action.

Image: Gavin Douglas (Deputy Secretary – Student Experience) negotiating with the occupiers in Charles Stewart House, a University building mainly used for corporate services as opposed to teaching. Courtesy of Andrew Perry.