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Should the Universities Superannuation Scheme divest?

Protest and divest: The USS continues to invest in fossil fuel companies. Source: James Ennis (via Wikimedia Commons)

by Nina White and Taher Esufali 

On February 20, Lawyers Without Borders Society and Cardiff University Amnesty Society hosted a climate change panel event called ‘2020: The Climate Decade.’

A representative from Extinction Rebellion and panellist at the event pointed out that the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which has £68 billion in assets, invests huge amounts in fossil fuel companies.

One of the USS’ largest investments, £499 million, is in Royal Dutch Shell, one of the largest oil companies in the world and colloquially known as one of the 6 ‘big oil’ companies.

They also invest in Exxon Mobil, another ‘big oil’ company, and the Russian state-owned oil and gas company ‘Gazprom’, of which they have £50million invested.

Speaking to Gair Rhydd about these investments, a spokesperson for USS emphasised that they are committed to “responsible investments” and in fact, they are “supporters of the Paris Climate Agreement” and a “founding member of the Transition Pathway Initiative.” They did not indicate any intention to divest from fossil fuels in the near future.

Following last month’s event, we also decided to contact Cardiff University and the University Colleges Union (UCU).

UCU, one of the trade unions representing university and academic staff across the UK, have stated that they are “fully behind global action against the climate crisis, including the call for more ethical investments.”

However, the most recent bout of UCU strike action, which ended on Friday, March 13, did not demand divestment by USS. Speaking to Gair Rhydd, UCU explained that they cannot include divestment in their strike demands due to the nature of UK trade union law. We asked a representative from UCU to further expand upon this, who explained that UCU members can only strike against issues relating to staff terms and conditions.

UCU state that universities do not have any direct influence over decisions on what USS invest in and divest from, which includes fossil fuels, despite most universities having declared a climate emergency.

In November 2019, Cardiff University declared a climate emergency and announced it aims to become carbon neutral by 2030, having also appointed the first Dean for Environmental Sustainability.

Cardiff University also revealed its full divestment from fossil fuels. According to the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Colin Riordan: “Our move to full divestment from fossil fuels sends a clear and positive message that we are committed to responsible investment, social responsibility and tackling climate change”, emphasising how important divestment is to staff and students alike.

Speaking to Gair Rhydd about USS’ fossil fuel company investments, a University spokesperson said: “Whilst the investment decisions of the USS pension scheme are ultimately a matter for the USS trustees we hope our move to full divestment from fossil fuels sends a clear message to others.”

The University then referred to declaring a climate emergency in November, explaining that by doing so they have “added their weight” to the global response to the climate emergency. They also made it clear that they will use their voice in the fight against climate change, “drawing on [their] pioneering research to leverage discussions, action and solutions to the climate crisis.”

Some of the funds stored in the USS pension scheme comes directly from lecturer and university staff wages, something students pay a proportion of through tuition fees.

Speaking about this, one student who would like to remain anonymous, said: “To me, the usage of my payments to be invested into fossil fuel companies is quite jarring” and who stated that whilst universities are at the forefront of tackling environmental issues and are “beacons of science”, questioned why they are not “striving for change?”

Ultimately, it doesn’t sound like USS are planning to divest from fossil fuel companies at any point in the near future.

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