Queen’s University (QUB) has been accused of “taking the cowardly way out” when faced with pressure to stop investing its pension fund in fossil fuels.
Sammy Wilson of the DUP said the university’s decision – to ‘seek to disinvest from companies involved in the extraction and production of fossil fuels by 2025’ – could not be justified unless it could get a better financial return for investors elsewhere.
Queen’s announced on Monday that, following discussions with the Students’ Union, the university has “updated its investment policy,” with the proviso that the new policy would be implemented “subject to no detrimental impact on expected investment returns”.
QUB president and vice-chancellor Professor Patrick Johnston, said: “Queen’s has a strong commitment to environmental sustainability through our teaching and research. In addition, we are currently implementing a comprehensive carbon management strategy which will significantly reduce our CO2 emissions by 2020.
“Our new objective to disinvest from indirect investments in fossil fuels, subject to this not materially impacting on expected investment returns, further highlights our commitment to the green and environmental agenda in line with the University’s Social Charter.”
Students’ Union president, and former chairman of Sinn Fein at Queen’s, Sean Fearon, said: “The Students’ Union has led a long campaign to raise awareness about the impact of climate change and bring the divestment agenda to the forefront of student politics.”
The London borough of Waltham Forest made history last year when its council workers’ pension fund decided to stop investing in fossil fuels.
Mr Wilson, the DUP’s East Antrim general election candidate, said he has been left wondering if Queen’s had “taken the cowardly way out when under a bit of pressure” from environmental campaigners and Sinn Fein.
“It would surprise me if any institution which has public funds, or indeed holds the pension funds for its employees, would take a decision to invest in anything other than what would give the best returns for that money.
“They should be asking themselves ‘does investing in fossil fuels give a good return? If it does, then they’ve got a moral duty to make the best return for the people who have entrusted them with their money.”
‘They should be asking themselves, does investing in fossil fuels give a good return?’
A study last year by Arizona State University professor Hendrik Bessembinder showed that divesting from fossil fuels would require universities to become more actively involved in managing their investments, rather than just letting them grow, so there would be “hidden costs” to divesting.
Prof Bessembinder claimed that funds could be depleted by between two and 12% over a 20-year period.
Mr Wilson added: “Since our economy depends very heavily on fossil fuels – whether it’s for energy generation or for driving vehicles, or indeed for heating our homes – then I think it makes sense to ensure that there is a supply of that energy source in the future.
“If we don’t invest then very quickly our economy will grind to a halt because we are so dependent upon it.”
• Fossil fuels are likely to remain a vital source of energy for many years to come following the election of Donald Trump as US president, the Financial Times has reported.
The pro-fossil fuel stance of the Trump administration means investors pulling out could face higher losses than anticipated.
Lauren Compere, director of shareholder engagement at Boston Common Asset Management, the US fund house, says investors should use a “combined strategy of divestment and engagement”, rather than simply pulling out of all fossil fuels, to drive change and achieve the best financial returns.
The article also quotes the divestment campaign organisation 350.org as saying: “The rapid rise of renewable energy and the Paris climate agreement send strong signals to investors that the age of fossil fuels is coming to a rapid end. Their business model is simply outdated”.
QUB has not responded to a request for comment.