Students lay down in protest on the steps of the building where senior vice principal Professor Charlie Jeffery set out the unanimous decision by the university’s court.

Insisting that the university was committed to a change of investment policy, Jeffery said: “Our commitment is to engage before divestment, but the expectation is that we will bring about change by engagement.”

Outlining what is essentially a company-by-company approach, Jeffery explained that the university would divest from companies involved in the extraction of coal and tar sands, only where feasible alternative sources of energy exist, and where companies do not invest in low carbon technologies.

The university was unable to specify what percentage of its investments are in those companies specifically, although 8-9% are accounted for by companies involved in fossil fuels extraction more generally. Edinburgh’s endowment is worth £291m – the third biggest of any UK university, behind Oxford and Cambridge.

Arguing that the university did not see its choice as “limited to no change or pulling out of all investment in the sector”, Jeffery said that the matter was “not a black and white issue of the world against fossil fuels companies”.

He also confirmed that one of the reasons why the university did not choose full divestment was because it could represent an “undue incursion into academic freedom” in terms of research into geological and engineering issues involved in the exploration of fossil fuels.

Friends of the Earth Scotland finance campaigner Ric Lander reacted to the decision, saying that: “The university has missed a clear opportunity to take a moral lead on tackling climate change and stand up for environmental justice.”

“The university appears content to have its money invested in the world’s most polluting companies including Shell, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto. These companies are oil drilling in the Arctic and mining coal in virgin rainforest. Any investment policy which continues to allow investment in such irresponsible companies is not fit for purpose.”

Dr Simon Lewis, reader in Global Change Science at UCL , said that the decision represented “a total failure of logic”.

“There have been 25 years of engagement with fossil fuel companies and it has not worked. It is not realistic to politely ask companies to end their core profitable business and expect them to agree and take action to end that core profitable business.”

Asked whether the university had been influenced by Glasgow university’s decision to divest from fossil fuels last November, Jeffery replied: “We quickly came to the conclusion that we would define the issue in our way. In a sense Glasgow’s decision was not something we were paying attention to because we were applying our own values and criteria.”

Prof Paul Younger , Rankine Chair of Engineering and Professor of Energy Engineering, university of Glasgow, said “Having been plunged involuntarily into the midst of the fossil fuel divestment debate when my own institution ploughed ahead with a simplistic commitment to divest from fossil fuels, as if all are equally damaging to the climate and as if simple alternatives exist for all their uses, it is refreshing to see the university of Edinburgh propose a policy that is consistent both with ethical principles and with what is technically feasible.”

Libby Brooks

This article first appeared in the Guardian

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