Cambridge University should stop accepting fossil fuel funding, report finds

The University has received more than £15 million in funding from oil companies since 2017

A recent report, published on Tuesday, has strongly recommended that The University of Cambridge terminate all research funding ties with fossil fuel companies, deeming its acceptance of funding as indefensible.

The report, conducted by High Level Climate Champion Nigel Topping who devised the four key recommendations, states that it is “difficult to find the logic behind the decision to continue to accept funding from fossil fuel funding sources”, such as BP and Shell.

The University’s commission of this report comes after it failed to approve a democratic vote of academics on Fossil Free Research (FFR), with the proposed “grace” not being authorised by the university’s governing body, Regent House.

This “grace” called the institution to “cease collaboration of all forms” with companies exploring new fossil fuels reserves and building new infrastructures and with those that remain members of associations which operate actively against climate policy.

Consequently, campaigners are now concerned with transforming the mere recommendations of the report into actionable university policies, such as urging the University to reconsider its classification of fuel companies as “amber” when, they claim, it is most likely that they fit the criteria of being “red.”

Image credit: Felix Armstrong

Mr Topping claimed that any potential loss of research funding was a “small amount of controversial funding” accounting for only 0.1 per cent of the University’s total income in the 2021-22 period.

Instead, he invited the University to replace this funding through a “major fundraising push” of up to one billion pounds, with aims of offering solutions to the global warming crisis.

Prof. Jason Scott-Warren, member of the University council and initiator of the primary call for a boycott, said the report is a “scathing indictment” of Cambridge’s historical association with the funding, which he says has legitimised “destructive corporations.”

Overall, he claimed it has “cast doubt on our seriousness in tackling the climate crisis.”

CBELA, the University’s committee on benefactions, took the notion of creating a traffic-light system in 2018 with the aim of confidentially assessing companies based on the reputational risk that may arise from their association with the prestigious University. 

For instance, the report reveals that it perpetually rated BP and Shell under “amber” levels, equivalent to acceptable to work with. Despite not having any “short-term targets, CapEx plans, or policy engagements which are aligned with [net zero by 2050]”, it said, the two companies were still not ranked as “red.”

Shell, however, denied these claims, reaffirming “it has a target of becoming a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050, delivering energy security today while helping shape and scale up the lower-carbon energy system of the future.”

The presence of red-rated corporations such as SLB (Schlumberger) at Cambridge has also led activists to question the disparity between said ratings and the action that the University should be taking. A red rating would stop the University from receiving money for research causes.

Mr Topping suggests that publicly rendering the new criteria available is recommendable, given that “transparency is trust” and that the controversial ranking has been kept private for years.

The report also references concerns from Cambridge Climate Justice (CCJ), a group which continues to pressure the institution to abolish funding from Big Oil.

Image credit: Felix Armstrong

This movement, which has taken place over the past few years, has involved a disruption of a private meeting with ORCA, an occupation of the BP Institute and a provision of the evidence for this report to Topping, as proactive actions in favour of the cause.

Cambridge student Vedika Mandapati, also CCJ organiser, confirmed the report has validated the group’s efforts and claimed that its content ought to have been “obvious to the University a long time ago.”

Mandapati also highlighted its “responsibility to act and its reputation as a leader on the climate crisis”, which is inevitably and currently being “undermined” by its position with regard to the funding. The organiser urges the University Council to effect an immediate ban on Big Oil.

However, the organiser also remarked that the report’s suggestion to not change its stance with regard to green subsidies of the fuel companies “disappointed” students. 

Said “loophole” was criticised by Sam Gee, a Natural Sciences student, CCJ campaigner and Fossil Free Research steering committee member. He stated that this case-by-case assessment would risk allowing “non-Paris aligned corporations to greenwash their reputation.”

Image credit: Felix Armstrong

Fergus Kirman, undergraduate President of Cambridge’s Student Union urged the discussed recommendations to be adopted, and hopes that the University will move “quickly to refuse funding from all fossil fuel companies.”

“Students are clear, the science is clear, and now this independent report is clear: the University must act.”

Upon receiving the Topping study at its meeting on 17th July 2023, the Council formed an informal working group with the tasks of examining how the four recommendations might be implemented and proposing “a format for further consultation across the collegiate University.”

A University spokesperson informed The Tab that they have “a view to reaching a conclusion by the end of December 2023.”

It is expected that the elite institution, which has received more than £15 million in funding from oil companies since 2017, will accept the report’s suggestions, the Financial Times reports.

When contacted for comment, a spokesperson from Shell stated: “Shell has a long and valued relationship with Cambridge University and since 2021 all projects started together have focused entirely on the energy transition.

“This work aims to combine the brightest minds, with the right resources, as well as the commercial ability to scale-up and implement new solutions.

“We strongly disagree with the recommendations made to the University’s Council, which risk slowing this important work and so hampering the UK’s energy transition, while such partnerships between universities and energy companies elsewhere in the world forge ahead.

“A continued partnership with Cambridge University would help advance the UK towards its net zero goal.”

BP and SLB were also contacted for comment. 

Feature image credits: Felix Armstrong