The black and white of divestment

Last month, Glasgow University made history as the first academic institute in Europe to completely divest from the fossil fuel industry. However, as campaigning students and staff celebrated several senior academics spoke out against the Court’s ruling claiming it to be “vacuous posturing”.

Professor Paul Younger, the Rankine chair of engineering, states that the “black-and-white world which GUCAS portray in their well-meaning but naïve propaganda is a parody of reality”. Younger explains that the energy sector encompasses both hydrocarbon and renewable industries and that the latter “absolutely relies on the former, and will do for decades to come”.

Professor Robert Ellam, the director of the Scottish Universities Environmental Research centre (SUERC), also criticises the Court’s ruling claiming that the fossil fuel debate has become a “facile caricature”.

Both Younger and Ellam have backgrounds in geology and understand the role that fossil fuels have played in climate change stating that human beings have “influenced the planet in an unprecedented way”. However, Ellam still supports the continued use of fossil fuels as “we have no credible alternatives at the moment if we are to keep people fed and warm with a reliable supply of electricity”. After visiting Fukushima three times in the past year Ellam knows only too well how difficult it can be to implement new renewable technologies safely and efficiently.

Over the past 200 years the fossil fuel industry has reduced its carbon emissions by transferring infrastructure from carbon rich coal to hydrogen rich natural gas. This transition is not the result of activism or governmental policies but simply from the energy sector’s desire for more efficient fuels. However, natural gas has taken decades to gain a significant place in the global market due to the mass infrastructure that energy sources require. These same restrictions apply to renewables that have only just emerged and so require more time to develop.

Professor Colin McInnes is another senior academic standing alongside Younger arguing that the ethics of climate change are not the sole consideration in the debate. Activists make the point that renewables can easily meet our electricity demands. This is true. However, electricity only accounts for 20% of our energy usage. The other 80% is for domestic heating and transport, which can only be sustained on such a massive scale by the fossil fuel industry.

What activists fail to consider is the 1 billion people currently without access to modern energy and who remain in crippling poverty because of this. In order to aid the poorest in our society the energy sector must expand and this cannot be achieved through renewable sources alone. A perfect example is the 650 million people in China that have been saved from poverty by the country increasing its coal industry. This issue also hits closer to home as a region in Scotland boasts the worst fuel poverty in Europe as it is the only region not connected to the main gas grid. Also, Professor Younger himself is actively engaged in projects to install gas heating systems in Glaswegian tower blocks stricken with poverty.

McInnes states that “the energy sector has given historically unprecedented prosperity” and is the reason that teachers can teach, nurses can nurse, and students can attend university while their energy consumption is supported by the industry. “The challenge in the next few years is to bring this prosperity to the 1 billion, and that is the true point of social justice”.

Although fossil fuel investment only accounted for 10% of the university’s portfolio there have been repercussions to the decision. Professor Fin Stuart, head of noble gas laboratories at SUERC, states that “many of us have research collaborations with the hydrocarbon industry, often on topics that have positive societal benefit”. Most of the department’s research focuses on developing Carbon Capture and Storage technology without which, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “there is no realistic chance of the world reaching decarbonisation targets in time”.

After the Court’s vote Stuart and many other researchers fear it may “jeopardise those relationships and ultimately damage the university’s ability to research in these fields”. Indeed a company sponsoring one doctoral researcher is already considering cancelling their funding stating that the Principal “failed to give a convincing answer to the hypocrisy”.

All the way back in July when the Court was considering the issue of divestment the School of Engineering submitted a statement raising every single issue that has been discussed above while concluding “Why would we publicly posture as pretending we believe that immediate abandonment of fossil fuels is achievable? That would be intellectual dishonesty on a grand scale”. Younger and his colleagues believe that the Court’s decision has been made simply as a means of appealing to the well-meaning but misguided masses, and that the repercussions have not been fully considered. In the aftermath, Younger laments that “sadly, Andrew, our historic university opted for feel-good politicking over intellectual honesty”.

[Andrew McIntyre]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: