Singapore universities, energy firms respond to student fossil fuel divestment campaign

Colleges are keener to address divestment than banning fossil fuels brands from campuses. Oil major Shell says it has a long relationship with Singapore’s universities, and believes in ‘engaging and equipping’ students to tackle the energy challenge.

Women in NUS event
A Women in NUS event, which the Fossil-Fuelled Universities report higlighted is backed by oil and gas major Shell. Image: NUS

Singapore’s universities have responded cautiously to a climate action campaign from students urging the city-state’s top colleges to divest from fossil fuels, and purge the higher education system of the influence of carbon-intensive energy firms. 

The Students for a Fossil Free Future (S4F) coalition, which launched its campaign last week, is calling on Singapore’s leading universities to drop investments in polluting hydrocarbon energy companies. It has also asked them to stop allowing oil and gas brands to meddle in the education system. Oil and gas executives currently sit on some university management boards with companies also sponsoring campus events and funding research.

Four of the main universities targeted by the campaign told Eco-Business that they were focused on integrating environmental, social and governance (ESG) into educational programmes and operations, including how university endowments are invested, but swerved the issue of how involved big polluters should be in Singapore’s higher education system. 

A spokesperson for Singapore’s largest university, National University of Singapore (NUS), pointed to its statement on sustainability and said it believed in a “shared responsibility” to build a greener future. The institution said that it is engaging a range of stakeholders to find solutions and raise awareness on sustainability issues.

“The university adopts a responsible investment strategy with a focus on ensuring that our investments generate income to support the activities of the university, while closely aligning to principles of environmental sustainability and social responsibility,” the NUS spokesperson said, referring to the Sustainable Investment Policy it introduced last year.

Our universities have yet to substantively engage with most of our recommendations, especially those concerning the fossil fuel industry’s presence in academia, professional development and the use of our campus spaces.

Students for a Fossil Free Future

The Fossil-Fuelled Universities campaign highlighted that a portion of NUS’s endowment is invested in fossil fuel firms, which amounts to at least SG$59 million (US$44 million). It also noted that oil major Shell, sponsors events such Women in NUS, and ExxonMobil funds the long-running ExxonMobil Campus Concerts series.

“We will continue to encourage our fund managers to divest from polluting assets,” the NUS spokesperson said, adding that they welcomed ideas from students on climate action.

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) referred to its pledge to achieve carbon neutrality, and halve emissions by 2035 as part of a 15-year plan to become a “global leader in sustainability.”

NTU pointed to its Sustainability Manifesto and Sustainability Framework to meet its climate goals, and said that its investments “enable the university to maintain a steady stream of funds to support its long-term strategic growth, while guarding against disruptions, such as having to significantly increase tuition fees during economic downturns.”

“The university’s investment fund does not specifically target the fossil fuel industry. ESG considerations are carefully integrated into the investment management process to balance the iniversity’s sustainability objectives with its fiscal health and financial outcomes for the portfolio and endowment fund over the long term,” it said.

S4F’s campaign noted that NTU has former oil and gas executives on the management board, and that fossil fuel firms sponsor academic prizes. NTU does not disclose how much of its endowment is invested in carbon-intensive energy. 

Singapore Management University said it is “actively” developing its approach to ESG issues, and responsible investment is a part of that plan. “We have initiated a process which will take us forward in important ways in the short, medium and long term,” it said.

S4F pointed out that SMU has received funding from oil and gas firms including Emirates National Oil Company,  Shell International Eastern Trading Company, and Koch Refining International.

We value our partnership with institutes of higher learning to create awareness, dialogue and action, so youths can share their voice and contribute to the energy transition.

Shell spokesperson

Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) said it had recently announced a sustainability plan to “build a more sustainable and happier world by design.”

“The entire SUTD community is encouraged to play an active role in campus greening initiatives, education and research, to build a broad-based culture of sustainability within the university,” a SUTD spokesperson said.

STUD has hosted events sponsored by oil and gas firms, including a debate on the future of energy hosted by Maarten Wetselaar, Shell’s director of integrated gas and new energies.

Shell, which has operated in Singapore since 1891 and operates its largest refinery in the city-state, said it had a longstanding relationship with Singapore’s universities, and “believes in engaging and equipping our future generation of problem solvers, leaders and innovators to tackle the energy challenge.”

“That is why we value our partnership with institutes of higher learning to create awareness, dialogue and action, so youths can share their voice and contribute to the energy transition,” a Shell spokesperson said in a statement.

The company noted that it recognised that climate change is an “urgent challenge” and aims to be a net-zero business by 2050.

It also said that it aims to transform its business in Singapore, cutting emissions by half by 2030, and is working on a plan to produce cleaner energy solutions, circular chemicals, sustainable aviation fuel, and a regional carbon capture and storage hub.

BP and ExxonMobil did not respond to requests for comment. State utility, SP Group said that as it distributes electricity and gas and does not generate it, it would not comment. SP Group was identified in the report for sponsoring a book prize at Singapore Institute of Technology.

Students call for transparency, inclusivity

SF4 noted that the universities were yet to acknowledge most of the recommendations in its report, and pointed out that confronting the fossil fuel industry’s presence in academia was key to addressing how Singapore’s higher education system tackles climate change.

S4F called on the universities to assess the suitability of their current ESG benchmarks “if they allow investments in companies which threaten a liveable future.”

“At minimum, we believe that good governance should entail our universities disclosing their investments across all asset classes, their investment exclusion and inclusion criteria as well as investment policies,” it said.

The campaign’s authors also called the universities to be inclusive in their planning. “To our knowledge, our universities have yet to extensively engage with students and the broader communities in the development of their existing sustainability commitments,” they said.

S4F called on the universities to first address its short-term recommendations, which include:

  • Developing and publishing a timeline for complete divestment from fossil fuels;
  • Developing and publishing a plan to secure alternative modes of funding from companies committed to a post-carbon transition towards academic opportunities;
  • Seeking to increase the advertisement of career opportunities centred on sustainable, low-carbon industries.

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