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Statement

University of Leeds Council statement: Fossil Fuels

The University of Leeds is committed to helping the world move as quickly as possible to a low carbon future.

We have a strong track record upon which to build.

For example, we had five lead authors contributing to the IPCC report which informed the Paris climate talks in December 2015.

Looking to the future, we will shortly be launching the Priestley Centre for Climate - a world-leading centre for solution-driven climate research.

It is against this backdrop that the University’s Council – its governing body – recently considered a proposal from the students’ union that the University divest itself of direct share-holdings in fossil fuel companies.

The Council shares the over-arching objective of the students’ proposal – to champion the move to a low-carbon economy and to limit and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Any points of divergence rest on the most effective way to achieve this objective.

Having given very careful consideration to the evidence and the arguments, the Council concluded that, while it is imperative that the University continues to take action (see below), it could not support divestment at this time, for the following reasons.

  • Consistency. It would be ethically questionable for the University to divest from fossil fuel companies while continuing to rely on fossil fuels for so much of its day-to-day activity, while continuing to take money from fossil fuel companies to support research (see below), while training students to work in mining and petrochemical industries, and while accepting donations from people who have worked in the fossil fuel sector. It is also difficult to distinguish ethically between different types of companies that make money from fossil fuels. Arguably there is little difference between those that extract fossil fuels on the one hand and, for example, supermarkets that sell petrol. It would prove very challenging to set effective parameters for divestment.
  • Research. The University currently works with fossil fuel producing companies to develop low-carbon technologies, for which it receives research funding from industry. In order to be consistent and credible, the Council believes divestment and cessation of this research funding would have to go hand-in-hand, and it does not consider it appropriate at this time to give up research that could be important for the future. We believe that by researching and working with fossil fuel companies, they can become part of the solution.
  • Timing. As efforts to move to a low carbon economy gain momentum, there may come a point where divestment can help provide the impetus to bring about necessary change. But widespread divestment - at a time when we are all still dependent on fossil fuels and when we need to invest in low carbon transitions - might disadvantage some of the World’s most vulnerable nations. The developing world has few alternatives to fossil fuels.
  • Influence. Divestment would deprive the University of influence as a shareholder to encourage the companies in which we invest to adopt environmentally responsible practices.

However, the University recognises the urgent need to reduce emissions and to this end it will do the following:

  • Keep pressure on fossil fuel companies to move as quickly as possible to a low-carbon future. In doing so we will work with academics from the Priestley Centre and also with our investment manager (Sarasins), which is already a member of an investor coalition supporting major companies to help prepare for a low-carbon transition.
  • More proactively promote public engagement on the issue of climate change. As previously noted, the University has a lot to contribute here. Initiatives like the Priestley Centre provide a platform on which to raise the issue further.
  • Continue to drive sustainability on campus. At the March meeting the Council agreed to adopt the University’s sustainability strategy which commits us to reducing our own carbon emissions by 35% by 2020, and looking beyond this to becoming a low carbon organisation.  We continue to develop initiatives which help us reduce our carbon footprint and integrate our teaching and research into our operations.
  • Keep the position on investments under review to ensure we respond appropriately to developments.

In summary, the University is committed to supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy. We believe we can most effectively do this through teaching, and through research to reduce emissions from the use of fossil fuels and develop alternative energy sources, alongside leveraging our considerable reputation in this area to encourage behavioural change.

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