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Cambridge University to divest from fossil fuels, as momentum to decarbonise grows among world's top colleges

Universities in the Asia Pacific have been slower to divest despite calls by student groups, but more are making net zero-emission pledges.

cambridge zero carbon society
Students have campaigned for Cambridge to divest for years. Image: Cambridge Zero Carbon Society/ Facebook

Britain’s Cambridge University has become the latest higher education institution to divest from fossil fuels, five months after its rival Oxford made the same pledge.

The commitment to divest follows years of campaigns by students and activists, who had called out the university’s ties with major oil companies.

Cambridge will divest from all direct and indirect investments in fossil fuels by 2030, said vice-chancellor Stephen Toope in his annual address on Thursday (1 October).

Its £3.5 billion (US$4.5 billion) endowment fund, one of the biggest among European universities, will instead ramp up investments in renewable energy by 2025, Professor Toope said.

It will withdraw investments with public equity managers that focus on fossil fuels by the end of this year, and aims to achieve a net zero greenhouse gas emissions investment portfolio by 2038. That is also when the university aims to achieve net zero emissions.

Cambridge will scrunitise all research funding and other donations to ensure that donors are compatible with the university’s objectives to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Toope’s announcement was welcomed by the student-led campaign group Cambridge Zero Carbon, environmentalist Bill McKibben and other activists.

“This sends a resounding signal to BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil: no more will Cambridge University profit from the companies who have decimated frontline communities, bankrolled misleading climate science, lobbied against environmental regulations, while continuing to explore for oil even as the planet burns,” said Cambridge Zero Carbon, which said it would push for the 2030 commitment to be brought forward.

McKibben, the founder of climate activist group, said the university is finally putting “its money where its brains are, acknowledging the overwhelming threat the fossil fuel industry poses to the planet’s climate”.

Cambridge joins half of the universities in the United Kingdom that have pledged to divest from fossil fuels. Universities outside of the UK include Harvard and the University of California. The latter has, in fact, already divested completely from fossil fuels. One of the largest university systems in the United States, it announced in May that it has sold more than US$1 billion in fossil fuel assets from its pension, endowment and working capital pools and invested US$1 billion in clean energy projects.

Momentum for universities to go net zero and divest from fossil fuels is growing worldwide. Universities in the Asia Pacific have been slower to divest despite calls by student groups, but more are making net zero pledges.

For instance, Singapore’s and Australia’s oldest universities pledged recently to go net zero, but have not said they will withdraw investments in fossil fuels.

The University of Sydney said last month it aims to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025, and net zero emissions and zero waste to landfill by 2030.

The National University of Singapore announced plans in August to reduce waste generated and plant more trees. It aims to achieve a carbon neutral campus by 2030.

Universities in the region that have pledged to divest from fossil fuels include Australia’s University of New South Wales, La Trobe and the Queensland University of Technology.

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