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Why we are fossil free

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 To solve the climate crisis, every facet of the economy has to do and think differently. How are the University’s investments helping?

Climate change is a frighteningly visible thing: ice sheets melt, wildfires rage, crops fail, species become extinct. People lose their livelihood, their homes, their lives.

Climate action is visible too: windfarms replace power stations, commuters swap cars for bicycles and children lobby their governments to demand a habitable future. Images of the ‘green revolution’ pop up on food packaging and news feeds with increasing regularity.

Yet one of the most important solutions to the climate crisis is also the least visible: what activities we choose to finance.

Phasing out fossil fuels

In February 2021, the University announced it had divested from fossil fuels. The institution had successfully removed direct and pooled investments in companies involved in coal, tar sands, oil and gas extraction and refinement, from its portfolio.

Fossil fuel divestment is a way for organisations to signal their support for an economy built on clean energy, where fewer greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere, slowing global heating.

When divestment is combined with increased investment in renewables – in addition to supporting the oil and gas sector to amend its business practices and reskill its workforce – it is a powerful tool for change.

Dave Gorman, Director Social Responsibility and Sustainability
Dave Gorman, Director Social Responsibility and Sustainability

“As a University committed to social responsibility and sustainability, we are pleased to have met our divestment promise,” says Dave Gorman, the University’s Director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability. “Now we need to move forward by looking at how to reduce carbon across all of our investments, continuing to invest positively in renewable energy and the sustainable technologies of the future, and aligning our portfolio to our net zero goal.”

Hidden heroes

If divestment was visible, it would be a group portrait.

The process took five years to fully conceive, three years to complete, and involved a surprising number of people.

Back in 2014, staff in the University’s Finance and Social Responsibility and Sustainability teams worked with external fund managers to undertake a major review of the University’s investment portfolio and its carbon exposure. In 2015, students formally joined with staff to shape the University’s divestment approach as part of an extensive and wide-ranging review group. The review resulted in the end of coal and tar sands investment; a commitment to prioritise low-carbon investments; and a plan to take further action in 2018.

During those years, pressure mounted on public and private organisations to go fossil free. The movement was widely supported by university students who – in a means similar to children’s school strikes of 2019 – lobbied their institutions to go further, faster.

Amanda Scully, VP Community, Edinburgh University Students' Association
Amanda Scully, VP Community, Edinburgh University Students’ Association

“Students’ lives are already being shaped by climate change and its complex and intersectional impacts,” says Amanda Scully, Vice Principal for Community in the University’s Students’ Association. “They are concerned about how it will affect their future after education.”

“When looking for ways to make an impact on campus, investments and divestment are things students care about,” she continues. “This comes from a passion to get involved in climate action, but also from a desire to make sure the University upholds its values, matching students’ commitments to make the radical changes needed to address the climate emergency.”

People at the heart of strategy

In 2016, the University published its climate strategy to solidify how the whole institution would tackle the climate crisis: building on the strength of its research and teaching to make its operations carbon neutral by 2040.

By 2018, the University decided that complete divestment from direct and pooled investments in fossil fuels was the only path forward. Over the next three years, Finance staff worked with external fund managers to meticulously search for any remaining investments and remove them.

In the end, approximately 100 staff, students and external players have been involved. If their imagined group portrait was divestment made visible, perhaps a copy of the University’s Annual Report and Accounts might be their yearbook; the divestment page joyfully annotated with their signatures.

This work may not be as evocative as young people taking to the streets to cry out for change, but it is just as important. The fight against the climate crisis is a collective fight, and every action makes a difference.

Student group working together

Investing responsibly

While it’s important to mark this success, our work cannot stop here.

The University’s investment portfolio must continue to reflect its commitment to tackling the climate crisis and to make a positive impact on society by supporting socially and environmentally responsible activities.

We also need to continue sharing our approach transparently with others, and linking it to the bigger picture.

Those familiar with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals – or anyone who follows the news – will know that multiple crises afflict global society, from pandemics to poverty, and from unequal access to education to bloody conflicts. Socially responsible finance can have a hugely positive impact on them all, channeling funding to where it’s needed most.

The University is quietly making a name for itself as a leader in responsible investment, having racked up a number of accolades and awards in recent years. An ongoing, values-based commitment to social and civic responsibility will continue to shape the direction of its research, teaching and operations.

While these activities don’t always produce great pictures, they do make a great difference.

Thanks to our staff, our students and our partners, there is much, much more to come.

Discover more on sustainability at Edinburgh

Photo credits: Sarah Ford-Hutchinson;; Andrew Perry; Paul Zanre Photography.