A university which condemned fossil fuel companies for contributing to climate change has now admitted that oil and gas will be needed “for many decades to come”.
The University of Glasgow angered many of its senior scientists this month when it agreed to a demand from a student environmental group that it sell £18m worth of shares in the fossil fuel extraction industry.
The university portrayed itself as a green pioneer, declaring it was “the first UK university to divest from the fossil fuel industry”
The university has now issued a new statement in which it acknowledges that power from renewable sources, such as wind, is intermittent and needs to be backed up by power stations burning fossil fuels.
The statement, partly written by the professors who objected to selling the shares, says:
“There is a need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but it will be necessary to continue to use them for many decades to come.
“Gas turbines are the most promising technology yet available to balance the variable generation from wind turbines and other renewables. Moreover, natural gas is crucial to keeping heating affordable for UK households, and is proving key to alleviating the poverty of those one in six humans who currently lack access to modern energy services.”
The statement also makes clear that the university will only sell the shares if the financial impact is “acceptable” and even then it would take up to 10 years to move its money out of fossil fuel companies.
Paul Younger, professor of energy engineering and one of six professors at the university who criticised colleagues for swallowing student “propaganda” on fossil fuels, said the new statement would help repair relationships with oil and gas companies which funded research.
He said the university had realised its position on fossil fuels was too simplistic: “The university has now acknowledged that we don’t have available at scale alternatives [to fossil fuels] for transport, heat and power on demand.”
However, he said the university was being weak and inconsistent by continuing to claim it would sell its fossil fuel shares if the financial penalty was acceptable.
“If you are going to set yourself up on an absolutist ethical platform, the logic of that position is that you should sell the shares heedless of the consequences. What sort of morality is it to say ‘I will only follow the courage of my moral convictions if it doesn’t affect me personally’?”
The university’s investment advisory committee is commissioning expert opinion on the financial impact of selling the shares and will report back to the governing body, the University Court, in February, when a final decision may be taken on whether to sell the shares.
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