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Balliol divests from fossil fuels

Balliol College has announced plans to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies. The college released a statement on Monday, saying that it planned to reduce its endowment’s fossil fuel exposure, “as far and as fast as practicable.”

This includes what the Chair of Balliol’s Investment Committee, Richard Collier, has described, as a “significant reduction in the College’s fossil fuel investments,” from approximately 2.4% of its total endowment to a target of less than 1%, with a view to reducing this further over time.

This would represent the College divesting at least £1.67 million of its total £119.1 million endowment fund away from fossil fuel extraction companies.

The plans include selling some holdings and making alternative investments where necessary, however, this applies to extractors, and not necessary to oil service companies or drilling equipment manufacturers.

Students have campaigned for over a year for the College to divest its funds from companies which directly contribute to the climate crisis, and this move undoubtedly represents a victory for those who have pressed for Balliol to shift its policy regarding investment.

In a statement released on the Balliol College website, the role of students was directly referenced as the driving force behind the decision, citing students’ concern about the College’s investment policy provoking a “response” from the Investment Committee.

Reacting to the decision, the student Balliol Divestment Campaign commented, “We’re thrilled that Balliol has decided to align itself with a just and sustainable future, and has realised that such a future is incompatible with the continued burning of fossil fuels.”

The group added, “We look forward to seeing more and more institutions take this step and join the growing divestment movement.”

Balliol becomes the fifth Oxford College to announce a shift in policy to one specifically aiming to divest its funds from fossil fuel companies, joining St Hilda’s, Wadham, Wolfson and Oriel.

On a university scale, however, Oxford ranks 45th in the People and Planet university league scorecard. The ranking includes such measurements as environmental sustainability, policy and strategy, and would suggest that despite the student success to pressurise a shift in Balliol’s policy, the university as a whole is behind the curve with regards to its divestment policy.

Critics would point to the fact that Oxford still has over £200 million in fossil fuel funds, undermining the leading research that members of the University have carried out with regards to climate science.

The news comes after an open letter from Fossil Free SJC revealed that St John’s College had invested a combined £8m in BP and Shell, two of the world’s leading fossil fuel extractors with billions of pounds invested in future plans to continue the extraction of oil and gas.

In light of Monday’s announcement, Fergus Green of the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign welcomed Balliol joining the select group of divesting colleges. He added, “The student body is angry at years of obfuscation and delay on climate action and Oxford cannot ignore this pressure any longer.”

Not only has Balliol committed to reducing its endowments in fossil fuel exposure, the College committed itself to not soliciting or accepting direct or indirect donations from fossil fuel companies, as well as declaring its intent to join discussions with Oxford University Endowment Management (OUEM), the body which manages the University’s central endowments.

The move is not only environmentally significant, it represents an important symbolic shift, as the College’s endowments contribute substantially to its annual income, and thus supports scholarships, bursaries, fellowships and the maintenance of Balliol’s historic buildings.

In addition, Balliol announced its aims to encourage greater student-staff collaboration on measures concerning sustainability, guided by the Oxford Climate Action Plan, which will examine how the College can make its policies regarding energy, waste and food more sustainable.

The Balliol Divestment Campaign’s work is not over though; the group’s next aim is to reformulate the College’s environmental policy which is argued to be “outdated and not ambitious enough,” despite being written in 2017.

Responding to the further commitments made by the College, the Co-Director of People and Planet, J Clarke, congratulated Balliol on “taking a principled stance on the refusal of donations from those most responsible [for the] climate crisis.”

The announcement puts mounting pressure on other colleges, as well as the OUEM, to change their investment policy whilst representing an important victory for divestment campaigners. The fact that Balliol is only the fifth Oxford College to announce a policy of divestment raises serious questions over the University’s commitment to reducing its contribution to the climate crisis.

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