A response to Harry Saunders’ “Divestment will not keep carbon in the ground”

This blog post is a response to a recent article on the divestment of shares in fossil fuels by Harry Saunders.

Jack and Emily are part of the ‘Fossil Free Sussex’ campaign, which aims to encourage the University to move its investments away from the oil, gas and coal industries.  In his well-written and thought-provoking article, Harry argues that ‘divestment will not keep carbon in the ground’, by pointing out that shares in a company represent a stake in the ownership of that company, but do not affect the fundamental production economics, even if widespread divestment does occur.

These kinds of arguments against divestment seem to be based upon the view that the campaign is trying to bankrupt the industry. Whilst campaigning at Sussex, we have said from the beginning that the damage we are attempting to do is not financial; UK universities have a combined endowment wealth of around £10bn (People & Planet estimation, 2013), of which around 5% can reasonably be thought to be represented by fossil fuel stocks.  We are aware that £500m is never going to financially harm the industry (and after reading the article, it is apparent that were this figure to be much larger, it still wouldn’t).

What we are instead trying to do is inflict reputational impact. The oft-made analogy between divestment in fossil fuels and Apartheid South Africa highlights where this has been successful in the past (though there are of course distinct differences between the two – this analogy is slightly challenging but the basic principles are the same). Our universities do not invest in tobacco, arms manufacture, pornography or gambling industries. The arguments Harry has made apply equally to these companies, yet they have a reputational tarnish and thus have seen their shares sold by certain institutions. We believe this industry should be added to that list, because of issues like unburnable carbon; we are not saying that we should divest to stop carbon emissions (directly), but that because of carbon emissions we should divest.

The divestment campaign is not attempting to halt – or even particularly to slow – fossil fuel extraction. In fact, it is precisely this absence of grand ambition which is appealing, since it thereby avoids the problems of intractability which tend to plague public attempts to tackle climate change. Instead, the campaign seeks to redefine what we mean by an ‘ethical investment’. Most universities (and churches, and other institutions who are considering divesting) already have an ethical investment portfolio, which avoids arms, tobacco etc. What is needed is a redefinition of ‘ethical’ to include concern for the climate. An investment in fossil fuels should not be considered an ethical investment, assuming that protecting the environment and mitigating climate change is an ethic we hold dear.

In this sense, perhaps better parallels can be drawn with other types of ethical investment, such as switching to an ethical bank account or buying fair trade. No-one claims that ethical bank accounts such as Triodos are going to put a stop to the arms trade; it is more a case of feeling that our own money should not be used in ways we feel uncomfortable about. It should not always have to be a choice between changing the world or doing nothing at all; sometimes small actions are correct for moral, rather than pragmatic, reasons.

This campaign is empowering people – in Sussex and worldwide – who otherwise feel they can do nothing about climate change, save ride their bike more and listen whilst policymakers squabble. Even if Sussex doesn’t divest but we cause a few more people to become interested in climate, then we will feel that the campaign has been a success.


photo of Jack MillerJack Miller began his PhD with SPRU and CIED in September 2014, conducting research into the role of energy efficiency in economic growth.  His work centres upon the concepts of ‘exergy’ and ‘useful work’, or the portions of energy inputs into the economy which can prove useful to economic activity and societal needs.  He completed an MSc in Energy Policy for Sustainability with SPRU in 2014, having undertaken a project looking at the prospects for future shale gas development in the US.  He has a degree in Physics (MPhys hons, University of Sussex, 2013), and has previously taught maths and physics from KS3 to first-year undergraduate level.


Emily Cox imageEmily Cox is a PhD researcher with the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex, researching electricity security in the context of a low-carbon transition. She is developing a methodology which can be used to assess low-carbon transition pathways for their resilience, affordability and sustainability. She has recently worked for the Royal Academy of Engineering, undertaking research for the Council of Science and Technology into the social and economic impacts of electricity shortfalls. She has also spent time working for E.ON Technologies at the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station, carrying out policy research into energy security, district heating, distributed storage, and the new UK Capacity Market. Emily is an Associate Tutor at the University of Sussex, tutoring an MSc in Energy Policy and a new BSc elective in energy transitions. She has also worked for a variety of NGOs, including as a regional network coordinator for Greenpeace; as such, she has tackled energy issues from within a broad spectrum of sectors including industry, academia, policy and civil society. She holds an MSc in Climate Change and Policy, a BSc in International Relations, and half of a rather ill-advised BA in music.

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5 comments on “A response to Harry Saunders’ “Divestment will not keep carbon in the ground”
  1. Excellent phrase ‘reputational impact’. Guess I’ll need to get some new signs made up we begin our reputational impairment campaign.

  2. Harry Saunders says:

    This is exactly the kind of clear thinking and statement of purpose needed by the divestment movement.

    Especially useful is the acknowledgement that divestment is not a direct means to sequestering carbon. This point is not quite the same thing as “trying to bankrupt the industry,” which was not what my post was about, but close enough I’d say.

    Authors Miller and Cox instead go on to make the case for divestment on other grounds. This should be the focus of the broader movement. Unfortunately, others (including the Stanford professors group) have not followed the example of Sussex and continue to conflate these arguments.

    I would like to suggest the two of you, Jack and Emily, make an effort to reach out to other universities and organizations to make the distinction clearer in their minds and in their public statements. As a tiny suggestion for your within-Sussex campaign, perhaps you could consider changing the wording in the Sussex University Ethical Investment Campaign stating that “…the University of Sussex should not be fuelling this destructive industry.” This implies causation – direct influence of Sussex investments on fossil fuels production — which I’m guessing (hoping?) you agree is unfounded.

    Focus on the ethical dimension is the right strategy. But I do worry about the effectiveness of the campaign overall in addressing climate change. I would rather see this movement focus on something far more likely to be effective, and I’ll be posting a follow-on article to this effect shortly.

    • Jack Miller says:

      Thanks very much for the positive responses, particularly to you Harry. We have taken your comments on board and will be communicating these thoughts with other groups wherever we can.

      I understand your concerns about the efficacy of the campaign in addressing climate change, but our final comment in the blog is relevant here; this campaign is unique in its ability to give power to people who would otherwise be passive observers. Upon first reflections, I cannot think of any other movement which has this quality. For this reason in particular, I look forward to your follow-on. Please do keep us updated.

  3. Hello! In the long-term, thermal power-plants driven by nuclear, geotherrmal and solar-thermal heat sources must match the thermal efficiencies of combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power-plants. QUAW’S and EnthalpIQ ltd have done research from 2012 supported by (innovate UK) to conceptualise methods of doing just that with today’s technology. With the more compact, efficient and feasible methods unpublished, the basic principle of an earlier method is in the public domain. http://www.quaws.name/product-characteristics
    CCGT plants utilise natural gas (whose transportation is non-trivial if the recent accidental explosion in Mexico city is anything to go by) which also (of course) releases carbon-dioxide upon combustion for turbine operation.

  4. Excellent, clear and thought-provoking article, thank you!

3 Pings/Trackbacks for "A response to Harry Saunders’ “Divestment will not keep carbon in the ground”"
  1. […] Originally posted on the Sussex Energy Group blog, January 29th 2015. Co-authored with Emily […]

  2. […] those in the divestment movement who have come to acknowledge that their efforts are fundamentally symbolic in nature, intended to raise awareness – ethics-driven though they be – I present the following question: “Why devote […]

  3. […] those in the divestment movement who have come to acknowledge that their efforts are fundamentally symbolic in nature, intended to raise awareness – ethics-driven though they be – I present the following question: “Why devote […]

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