Fossil Free SOAS wins fossil fuel divestment, 2015

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
13 November 2013 - 20 April 2015 (Approx. 17.25 months)
13 November
2013
to
20 April
2015
Location and Goals
Country: 
United Kingdom
Location City/State/Province: 
London
Location Description: 
University of London in London, UK
Goals: 
Pressure the University of London into divesting from fossil fuels.
 

The Fossil Free SOAS’s (the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London) divestment campaign began in the autumn of the 2013 school year as part of a cluster of divestment campaigns led by People & Planet, a network of student campaign groups in the UK focused on alleviating global poverty, defending human rights, and protecting the environment. On 13 November 2013, SOAS students, staff, and alumni joined together in signing a divestment petition to Professor Paul Webley, the director of SOAS at the time. Calling on SOAS to comply with the university’s values and policies, the petition demanded that SOAS remove “its investments in companies that have breached human rights,” remove “its investments in companies engaged in the fossil fuel industry, and explicitly commit to excluding these types of investments in the future,” and committing to “investing in low-carbon assets and renewable energy.” By 2014, the petition received over one thousand signatures from students, faculty, and alumni.

During the fall semester of the 2014 school year, Fossil Free SOAS began to actively promote the campaign on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, and hosted several pro-environment events with other organizations, such as Econ4Planet, People & Planet, and Fossil Free UCL. One event included a “Student Activist Weekender” that featured participatory workshops from several different groups including 3Cosas Campaign at the University of London: Sick Pay, Holidays, Pensions, Pete the Temp!, and Radical Housing Network. Furthermore, Fossil Free SOAS began hosting a radio podcast called the “Divestment Digest.” One episode featured an interview with the host of 350.org, Bill McKibben, a famous advocate for fossil fuel divestment. Fossil Free SOAS also began working in conjunction with another student-led divestment group at the University College London known as Fossil Free UCL. They helped publicize several pro-divestment events including a die-in during which over 100 UCL students lay down outside the doors of a UCL board management meeting and pretended to be dead.

On 10 November 2014, almost 60 students gathered outside the Russell Square: College Building and rallied under the message, “When you’re ready, SOAS, (for some divestment love), we’re ready too!” During the demonstration, Fossil Free SOAS presented the petition with over one thousand signatures to the SOAS Resources and Planning Committee (RPC) in anticipation of their meeting to decide whether to divest or not. In the petition, students called for the university to drop its investments in fossil fuels, specifically naming investments in BP, BHP Billinton, Shell, and Chevron. A week later, SOAS released a statement declaring that its decision on divestment would be delayed in order to “ensure that the decision-making process is as robust as possible.”

On 29 July 2014, Fossil Free SOAS announced that the SOAS, University of London had agreed to a temporary freeze on its fossil fuel investments while they explored other options. Both the campaigners and the administration seemed pleased at the progress made towards divesting the approximate 7% of SOAS’ endowment portfolio invested in fossil fuel related companies. Paul Webley, the director of SOAS, acknowledged that “SOAS has a duty to ensure that the School’s investments deliver a financial return - but we also have a duty to invest responsibly.” He then reaffirmed that the impact of human activity on the environment is a “serious source of concern” to members of the SOAS community and that they are committed to reflecting these views as a university. In addition to citing the recent progress on divestment, Webley also noted that the university has been “minimising the environmental impacts of buildings and facilities.” Julia Christian, a representative Fossil Free SOAS applauded the SOAS Resources and Planning Committee, noting that this was a fantastic first step. However, she asserted that Fossil Free SOAS still wanted the University to pull out of fossil fuels completely to better reflect the University values. With a “reputation for specialist teaching in African and Asian cultures” along with numerous courses focused on the environment and the problem of climate change, Christian argued that supporting climate-polluting industries did not align with the University’s core beliefs.

As the management of SOAS continued to analyze the financial effects of divestment on the University, hundreds of University of College London (UCL) and SOAS employees called on their employers to join the fossil fuel divestment movement. According to one SOAS staff member, they felt that UCL’s investments in the fossil fuel industry were at odds with the community’s core values. Professors and university staff signed and delivered letters to the UCL and SOAS boards on 20 April 2015 in response to their perceived slow progress in divestment plans. A few notable signatories in the letters included Professor Anthony Costella and Hugh Montgomery, the directors of the UCL institute for global health and human health and performance, and Dr. Leandro Vergara-Camus, an expert on climate change and extractive industries.

On 24 April 2015, approximately 18 months after the Fossil Free SOAS campaign began, the University of London SOAS announced its plans to divest the £1.5m of its £32m endowment held in oil, coal, and gas companies, becoming the first university in London and the third in the UK to divest from fossil fuels. Director of SOAS, Professor Paul Webley, acknowledged the magnitude of the university’s decision, citing the school’s “responsibility as an ethical investor, while continuing to ensure that the school’s investments deliver a financial return.” Webley also noted that he “hope[s] more universities will follow suit” and make a greater commitment to environmentally friendly investments.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The SOAS students were influenced by the students at the University of Glasgow and their campaign for divestment. This campaign set a precedent for divestment at Universities in the future.

Sources: 
Fossil Free. 2013. “SOAS: Divest From Fossil Fuels.” Retrieved on 25 Oct 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web/20150531225000/https://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/soas-divest-from-fossil-fuels).

Fossil Free SOAS. “Campaigning for SOAS to divest from fossil fuels.” Retrieved 25 Oct 2015 (

https://web.archive.org/web/20151026021513/https://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/search?q=https%3A%2F%2Ffossilfreesoas.wordpress.com%2F).

Howard, Emma. 2015. “Soas becomes first London university to divest from fossil fuels.” 24 April 2015. Retrieved on 25 Oct 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web/20151026021554

/https://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/search?q=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.theguardian.com%2Fenvironment%2F2015%2Fapr%2F24%2Fsoas-becomes-first-london-university-to-divest-from-fossil-fuels).

Mathiesen, Karl. 2015. “UCL and Soas staff tell their universities to divest from fossil fuels.” 20 April. Retrieved 25 Oct 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web/20151026021535/https:

//campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/search?q=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.theguardian.com%2Fenvironment%2F2015%2Fapr%2F20%2Fucl-and-soas-staff-tell-their-universities-to-divest-from-fossil-fuels).

Newsom, Rebecca. 2014. “SOAS Calls Halt to Fossil Fuel Investments with a View to Divesting this Autumn.” July 29. Retrieved 25 Oct 2015 (https://web.archive.org/web

/20151026021416/https://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/search?q=http%3A%2F%2Fgofossilfree.org%2Fuk%2Fpress-release%2Fuk-university-calls-halt-to-fossil-fuel-investments-with-a-view-to-divesting-this-autumn%2F).

People & Planet. “People & Planet’s Fossil Free campaign. Retrieved 25 Oct 2015 (https://

web.archive.org/web/20151026021452/https://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/search?q=http%3A%2F%2Fpeopleandplanet.org%2Ffossil-free).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Andrew Steele 25/10/2015