‘Divest Penryn’: Student Action for Fossil Fuel Divestment

Student fossil fuel divestment campaign group ‘Divest Penryn have vowed continued action until Exeter University divests from fossil fuel investment. Emma Eberhardt, member of ‘Divest Penryn’, tells us about the group’s continuing campaign for fossil fuel divestment.

On the 2nd of May, Divest Penryn took safe, peaceful, direct action on Penryn campus, urging Exeter University to stop investing in fossil fuels. The action stirred up attention from students, staff and locals and has generated an influx of strong support for the university to take action to reduce its climate impacts. Since then, on the 20thof May, the university declared an Environment and Climate Emergency.

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Divest Penryn action on Penryn Campus (Credit: Jake Roberts)

Divest Penryn is a student led campaign formed in 2015, raising awareness on the university’s unethical investments. Their demands have been the same for 4 years – full, unconditional, and rapid divestment from any organisations that directly profit from exploration or extraction of fossil fuels, including coal, tar sands, oil, and gas.

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‘Divest Penryn’

The university has recently divested (conditionally) in coal and tar sands, however still invests over £2 million of the Endowment fund in other fossil fuels contributing to climate breakdown.

The University of Exeter has got seven IPCC contributors in Fifth Assessment Report, more than any other university in the world, and provide world-class interdisciplinary research to address the challenges of climate change. Four researchers from Exeter featured on Attenborough’s latest documentary on the climate crisis. While the university prides itself on having an environmental and sustainable outlook, it continues to profit from investments in the very companies that are emitting carbon dioxide and directly causing the climate crisis.

Exeter claims that they continue to fund these industries because these industries provide valuable graduate employment to mining students. However, Divest Penryn asks whether it is wise to be sending students to work in an industry which, according to Exeter’s own researchers, must be systematically closed down, and the workers transitioned to alternative jobs, if we are to prevent 2°C or more of global warming.

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More than half of UK universities have now divested from fossil fuels, including Bristol University (Credit: Bristol Green Party)

Consideration of the ethics of investments is imperative – investors all over the world are recognising the moral issues of investing, and profiting from, industries that exacerbate the climate crisis. For institutions like the University of Exeter, which prides itself on being a leading climate institution, the reputational risk here is severe and urgent. Since 2012, thousands of divestments have surmounted portfolios and endowments of over $8.7 trillion. More than half of all UK universities have now divested from fossil fuels, including Bristol and Oxford. Young people are increasingly passionate about action on the climate crisis – the growing school climate strikes are populated by many future undergraduate applicants. There is a risk that this will harm not only graduates’ environmental reputation, but also the integrity and authority of our research and degree courses.

The University of Exeter’s current partial divestment from some fossil fuels carries the same integrity as no commitment as at all. Investments must reflect the values and interests of University of Exeter, as well as its staff and the student cohort it represents. The University’s current goals to “achieve change”, “tackle global issues” and “make the exceptional happen” are more closely aligned with divestment, not investment in fossil fuels. Exeter’s full divestment from fossil fuels is long overdue.

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Divest Penryn action on Penryn Campus (Credit: Jake Roberts)

During a visit to the campus by the university Vice-Chancellor, five students from Divest Penryn dropped a banner from the top of the 14m high canteen building, calling on the University of Exeter to ‘Stop Funding Climate Breakdown’ (watch footage). The students involved wore harnesses and were safely tied to the roof.

Meanwhile, other Divest Penryn members were handing out flyers on the ground and explaining the passers-by what was going on. BBC Radio Cornwall spoke to one of the participants during the action (listen from 45 minutes in). The action lasted about 10 minutes before security intervened, during which over 200 signatures were gathered for the online divestment and climate emergency petition. Police and the fire service were called but no charges are being pressed and no arrests were made.

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Divest Penryn action on Penryn Campus (Credit: Lucinda Mae Parfett)

The action received much support from both students and staff. The live video was widely circulated following the action, the footage was spoken of in class and the likes doubled on the Divest Penryn Facebook page.

We were able to talk to the Vice-Chancellor before his talk. He had been made aware of Divest Penryn’s intention to act in a letter previous to the action. Divest Penryn received promising news through the BBC Radio Cornwall broadcast that the university would agree to meet with the group of students. Through a further letter, Divest Penryn was advised that the meeting would be open to general students and staff would take place in early autumn, led by the Chief-Financial-Officer, and not the VC. Divest Penryn has requested an open meeting sooner to discuss concerns and convey the urgency of action on this issue.

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Divest Penryn speaks with the Vice-Chancellor of Exeter Universrity (Credit: Lucinda Mae Parfett)

The University of Exeter has made Divest Penryn aware of the terms of their new Investment Policy adopted in 2018 based on a comprehensive adoption of socially responsible investment principles. They are currently transferring to an ethical fund manager. The new Investment Policy excludes investments in the most intensive carbon extracting industries involving thermal coal and tar sands, as well as tobacco. No further exclusions have been specified. The university’s explanation was that they preferred the new fund manager to invest in companies that are deemed best in class on a range of environmental, social and governance issues. These include carbon emissions and climate impact but also human rights, deforestation, slavery, child labour, health and safety, employee relations, animal welfare and board diversity for example. Divest Penryn is calling for exclusions in all fossil fuels, now.

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Divest Penryn Campaign Group (Credit: Lucinda Mae Parfett)

Going forwards, Divest Penryn is waiting for the university to respond to an earlier open meeting specifically for divestment. If this is not met, the group is prepared to take further direct action to ensure the students’ voices are heard.

Exeter University declared a Climate Emergency on the 20th of May. Part of this must involve full, unconditional and rapid divestment from all fossil fuels. Until then, Divest Penryn have vowed to continue their actions.

About the Author: Emma Eberhardt is a recent BSc Environmental Science graduate from Exeter, with interests in environmental journalism, climate justice, agroecology and sustainable living. She helped organise the action with Divest Penryn. In her spare time, Emma enjoys hiking and camping. Her website includes her photography, films and reflective articles on climate change and nature.

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