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Glasgow University divests from coal

World Coal,

Glasgow University has become the first academic institution in Europe to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

The university court voted to divest £18 million from coal and other fossil fuels.

A student-led campaign, involving 1300 students, had fought for 12 months to encourage the university to stop investing in fossil fuels.

The university will also freeze further investments across its entire £128 million endowment.

Glasgow University is the first university in Europe to divest from fossil fuels, although universities in the US and Australia have already stopped their investments in coal. These universities include Stanford in the US and Sydney in Australia.

The University of Edinburgh, as well as Oxford University, are also set to announce whether or not they too will divest from coal and other fossil fuels. Oxford University is currently conducting a staff-only consultation, while Edinburgh is consulting with both staff and students.

Founded in 2011 across just half a dozen US college campuses, the fossil fuel divestment movement has gained remarkable traction over a relatively short period of time. A study by Oxford University last autumn found that it had grown faster than any previous divestment campaign, including those relating to apartheid, armaments and tobacco.

Many in the coal industry have railed against the divestment campaign. Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association (NMA) in the US, called the campaign “politically expedient”.

Popovich claimed coal is simply too cheap, too abundant and in demand to be affected by university divestitures. Moreover, it seems little thought has been given by the ‘Fossil Free’ students to the 3.5 billion people on the planet living in energy poverty. These people “certainly won’t have access to the electricity and energy they need in their lifetimes, unless coal generates it,” he said.

Notable academic institutions to have rejected student calls to end divestment in coal and other fossil fuels are Harvard and Washington University. Harvard president, Drew Faust, explained that a university’s endowment was “a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”

Brown University, also in the US, further rejected calls to divest from coal. President of Brown, Christina Paxson, wrote in a letter that: "Divestiture would convey only a nebulous statement — that coal is harmful — without speaking of the technological and policy actions needed to reduce the harm from coal — actions where Brown can make real and important contributions, through teaching and research."

However, although some universities will not cave in to student pressure, other notable institutions have pledged to join the fossil free divestment campaign. In September, the heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune announced they would withdraw funds from fossil fuel investments, while in July, the World Council of Churches, which represents over half a billion Christians worldwide, decided to pull its investments from fossil fuel companies.

Whether such pledges are anything more than a symbolic boost to the divestment campaign remains to be seen. However, those in the fossil fuel industry will understandably be wary of such developments. 

Edited from various sources by Sam Dodson

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