Reading between the lines of UCT’s Fossil Fuel Divestment

UCT council announces movement away from fossil fuels in bid to mitigate climate change

By Lola-May Dunn (Staff Writer)

After its first meeting of the year on Saturday, 12th March 2022, the UCT council finally made the decision to “divest” from fossil fuels, meaning that the university will be withdrawing all investments into companies involved with fossil fuel production or manufacturing. It is not yet clear what exactly this divestment will entail and how committed to it UCT truly is.

This comes in the wake of student protests around the issue, most recently a sparsely attended protest held by the UCT Green Campus Initiative on 11th March at Jameson Plaza. The protestors were highlighting UCT’s “dirty” investments under the slogan: “Injustice is not an investment”. The peaceful protestors called for the UCT council to vote to end the University’s investments into fossil fuels in its first meeting of the year.

It seems odd that an institution such as UCT, one that exists for the purpose of education and is on the forefront of climate research, was investing in fossil fuels in the first place. It is not easy to find a comprehensive list of the fossil fuel companies UCT invested in because upon googling the matter one’s screen is flooded by headlines such as: “UCT’s approach to responsible investment” and “UCT puts its mind behind innovation”. 

After analysing the University’s positive PR around the matter, it remains unclear where exactly the money was being invested, but according to the University’s website: “As of mid-2020 fossil fuels exposure accounted for approximately 2.5% of the endowment’s total assets” with renewable energy only at 1.8%.

These numbers seem relatively low, but considering the University’s endowment is more than R10-billion, 2.5% becomes a whopping R250 million invested in the leading culprit of climate change.

It is difficult to tell exactly how big of a move this “divestment” will be. When reading through UCT’s carefully worded announcement from 18th March 2022, “UCT announces landmark commitment to fossil fuel divestment”, it is important to stay alert. 

Certain phrases jump out of the announcement such as “The University of Cape Town (UCT) Council has in-principle agreed to the divestment from fossil fuels.”. An “in-principle” agreement is very different to the commitment advertised in the statement’s headline. When you agree to something in-principle it means the details are yet to be decided, it is not clear if it will happen in practice. This is a worrying get-out clause from the University, which essentially means that no real commitments have been made.

Fossil fuels are widely acknowledged to be a huge contributor to climate change, but divesting from them is not enough. Our society requires energy, and that energy has to come from somewhere.  In order to truly work towards a sustainable future, renewable energy sources need to be funded. The university has agreed to “immediate investment in renewable energy and/or green economy instead of new investments in fossil fuels.” This statement sounds extremely positive, but it is not as decisive as it appears. The R250 million rand previously invested in fossil fuels is not necessarily going to be redirected to renewable energy, because once again there is a get-out clause. All that this statement is really saying is that any new investments that would have been put into fossil fuels will rather be put into green energy. Essentially, if no new investments would have been made into fossil fuels, the University does not have to make investments into green energy. Once again, this is not much of a commitment.

That being said, this paints a very pessimistic view. Perhaps the carefully worded PR is merely precautionary and the university’s actions will turn out to be as good as they sound. While it is important to be wary of carefully constructed PR messages, it is also important to recognise positive actions when they appear. Organisations such as the UCT Green Campus Initiative and The African Climate and Development initiative have been highlighting this issue since 2013. Their action has finally been recognised.

This move from UCT is certainly heading in the right direction, a small step towards truly becoming the socially aware institution it claims to be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *