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Cambridge University halt to fossil fuel funding despite green energy shift

The move comes as experts warn of a growing “reputational risk” for institutions like Cambridge University if they collaborate with oil and gas companies.

The Bridge of Sighs, Cambridge (Photo: Adobe Stock/sborisov)

The decision of Cambridge University last month to temporarily stop accepting funding from companies linked to fossil fuels came amid rising pressure to detangle itself from entities that don’t align with its climate change stance even though the majority of the funding already has been directed to energy transition projects in recent years.

The move came amid growing calls from students and academics to cut ties with the fossil fuel industry. Last year, a report led by former UN climate action champion Nigel Topping had also recommended a halt to funding, warning of a “reputational risk” related to the ongoing collaboration with fossil fuel companies.

Cambridge University received on average £3.3 million per year over the last 6 years from fossil fuel companies, accounting for just 0.4% of research and philanthropy funding and 0.1% of its total university income.

In 2021, the university already adopted a red-amber-green system to assess energy companies’ alignment with the university’s climate change guidelines.

Amid this new due diligence process, funding from fossil fuel companies in the period November 2020 — April 2022 appears to have been entirely re-directed towards energy transition projects, funding data published on Cambridge University’s website shows.

The page lists Shell and BP as the only two contributors, with funding supporting research on carbon capture and battery storage technologies, among others projects.

Shell told The Financial Times its work with academic partners “aims to accelerate the energy transition by bringing together the brightest minds . . . as well as the commercial ability to scale-up and implement new solutions fast enough to make a difference.”

Role of oil and gas companies

The International Energy Agency (IEA) last year said that oil and gas companies’ contribution is essential to achieve decarbonisation objectives, stressing that these companies are best placed to invest in green energy given their vast financial resources and technological expertise.

The oil and gas industry invested around $20 billion in clean energy in 2022, accounting for roughly 2.5% of its total capital spending. However, to reach Paris Agreement targets as much as 50% of the industry’s capital expenditure should be directed towards clean energy projects by 2030, the IEA said.

“While Shell and BP are funding ‘green’ research, most of their other investments and profits come from the oil and gas industry,” William Bajwa of student activist group Cambridge Climate Justice, told Gas Outlook.

Asked whether severing ties with these companies wouldn’t actually harm progress on climate change, given the renewed focus on energy transition projects, he said “the green research they fund is used to greenwash their image while they continue to expand fossil fuel production, delaying the energy transition and accelerating the climate crisis.”

“These actions are at odds both with a liveable climate and with the university’s stated commitments,” he added.

“Cambridge can and should do more in its research on the climate crisis, but many other partners can facilitate this research without compromising the integrity of that research and creating conflicts of interest for the researchers,” he continued, adding that “the moratorium is only a temporary ban, it needs to be made permanent to ensure lasting, meaningful change.”

Cutting ties

“By cutting ties” with fossil fuel companies, “Cambridge university is not only preventing companies from having an influence over its research” but is also promoting a “broader acknowledgement that these companies are polluting and locking us into an irreversible climate breakdown,” Josie Mizen, a climate justice campaigner at UK student organisation People and Planet, told Gas Outlook.

While “it’s great to see this temporary step” the university should now “take this decision on a permanent basis, for example excluding [fossil fuel companies] from career events and opportunities to recruit students.”

Already, new graduates are increasingly turning away from jobs in the fossil fuel industry in favour of careers in other energy sectors such as renewables.

These companies’ “very existence is built on extracting and burning fossil fuels…Students increasingly want jobs that align with sustainability values,” she argued.

Speaking at a U.S. university in 2022, the UN secretary general Antonio Guterrez told new university graduates to not take up jobs with “climate wreckers” and to use their talents “to drive us to a renewable future.”

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