US and UK institutions have led the campaign to withdraw investment from dirty energy. European universities typically have smaller endowments, but this is no excuse not to act, say campaigners.
With politicians preparing to gather in Glasgow for the COP26 climate conference to wean the world off fossil fuels, the vast majority of continental European universities have still not committed to kicking the habit.
Unlike counterparts in the US and UK, only a handful of universities in the EU have pledged to divest from fossil fuels - no longer investing in shares of these companies, or taking their sponsorship money.
Of 211 educational institutions that have said they will divest from fossil fuels – the vast majority of which are universities and colleges – just 15 are based in mainland Europe, according to a Science|Business analysis of a database run by the climate campaign organisation 350.org. That is despite active divestment campaigns across the continent.
“We should encourage universities to be more active on this front,” said Peter-Andre Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Conference. There is a “certain reluctance” to divest, but he will consider raising the issue during the next country-wide meeting of German universities.
The UK is arguably the world leader in university divestment. Fittingly for the COP26 venue, Glasgow University became the first in Europe to divest seven years ago. Since then 100 other UK institutions have made commitments, more than half of all universities in the country.
The US has also made significant strides, with 63 institutions divested. Harvard University in September became the highest profile university to sign up, committing not to put its vast $53 billion endowment into fossil fuels any more.
Australia, Canada and New Zealand have also joined the campaign, with 25 universities across the three countries having made a divestment pledge.
In Europe meanwhile, outside the UK, only in Italy, Sweden, Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, Germany and Norway have any universities signed up, with 21 institutions between them.
In other words, in most EU countries, no universities have divested at all – a worse record than even the tiny Marshall Islands.
Of course, as Alt points out, German and most continental European universities are publicly funded, and have not built the kind of vast private endowments accumulated by the likes of Harvard.
They therefore have far less money, if any at all, to invest.
But this has not stopped the majority of UK universities from making a divestment pledge, even though few outside of Oxford and Cambridge have serious amounts of money squirreled away. And some German universities like the Technical University of Munich (TUM) are actively seeking to build a US-style endowment through donations.
Alt thinks it is worth making a divestment pledge even if universities have little money in the bank. It still has “symbolic value”, he said, something that US institutions have cleverly used in a way Germany has not. “It is possible that a lot of them [German universities] don’t know about it,” he added.
Transparency is also lagging in Europe, say campaigners. It is easy to find rankings of US and UK universities by endowment, but public lists for continental European universities are much trickier to come by.
“It’s hard to get the information about where the money is,” said Tine Langkamp, a divestment campaigner for 350.org, speaking about the situation in Germany.
The organisation’s best source of information on European endowments is a since-deleted Wikipedia page. “It’s very nitty gritty research if you want to find out, because it’s not public,” she said. In Sweden, however, where five universities have divested, financial information is much easier to find, she added.
Science|Business asked five universities with external references online to their endowments – the Central European University, Paris-Saclay, ETH Zurich, TUM, and the Humboldt University of Berlin – how much they owned and whether they would divest.
Paris-Saclay and ETH Zurich pointed to a plethora of green research and initiatives. But none responded with a specific endowment figure.
However, ETH Zurich’s policy is to “strive to reduce” its investments in fossil fuel companies to zero, according to its latest sustainability report.
Martin Herrmann, a climate protection manager at Humboldt, said that divestment was “not really an issue” because “because there is hardly any money to invest.” Committing to divestment would therefore border on “greenwash”, he said, rather like Humboldt agreeing not to use helicopters despite never owning one.
Another reason why continental Europe lags behind is the history of the divestment movement, argued Langkamp. By far the most famous university divestment campaign was launched against apartheid South Africa in the mid-1980s, but this movement was far better known in the English-speaking world than outside, she said.
“The concept of divestment was not known in Germany outside of the finance sector,” she said. “Divestment was not a word or tactic people were familiar with. It was much easier for English-speaking countries to pursue fossil fuel divestment because it was historically known. Social movements pass on history.”
What’s more, she said, the UK has a much stronger green campus campaigning structure than in Germany. “We had to set them up from scratch,” she said.
The campaigning focus in Europe is currently on banks, rather than universities, said a spokesman for 350.org. Despite some major divestment wins, “it’s true that it’s a mixed picture”, the organisation said in a statement. “Universities are less likely to manage an investment portfolio. And in some places they don’t manage their own pension funds either.” That means they are less of priority in terms of campaigning effort.
In Norway, the environmental campaigning group Future In Our Hands has not been working actively with universities since 2016, said Jonas Holmqvist, an ethical finance adviser for the group.
The country has had some successes, with several large universities making divestment commitments, including the University of Oslo. “The size of a holding in funds is not an excuse to disregard the ethical implication of those investments,” Holmqvist said.
But some politicians have criticised these moves as hypocritical, arguing that public university funding is necessarily built on fossil fuel profits because Norway is such a big petroleum exporter, he said.
Meanwhile in Switzerland, the campaigning focus has been on pension funds handling university employees, said Markus Keller, a representative of the Swiss divestment campaign. The biggest pension fund, Publica, which manages the pension funds of employees at ETH Zurich and EPFL Lausanne excluded nine coal producers from its portfolio in 2016, he said.