Universities must stop accepting funding from fossil fuel companies to conduct climate research, even if the research aims to develop green and low-carbon technologies, an influential group of leading academics has said.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, NASA data scientist Peter Kalmus and eminent US climatologist Michael Mann are among nearly 500 academics from the US and UK who wrote an open letter addressed to all university leaders in both countries. , calling on them to reject all funding from fossil fuel companies.
Accepting money from fossil fuel companies represented “an inherent conflict of interest” and could “taint” essential research and “compromise” academic freedom, they wrote. For companies, it was an opportunity to “green” their reputation and skew search results in a way that was favorable to them.
The letter draws a comparison to the tobacco industry and its disinformation campaigns, noting that many public health and research institutions reject tobacco funding for these reasons and calling for fossil fuel money to be addressed. in the same way.
“Universities and the research they produce are key to ensuring a quick and just transition away from fossil fuels. However, these efforts are undermined by funding from the fossil fuel industry. Academics should not be forced to choose between pursuing climate solutions and inadvertently aiding corporate greenwashing,” the signatories wrote.
Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, told the Guardian: “This kind of funding has been used to compromise leading academic institutions. This is a double for the polluters: they buy the imprimatur of these institutions as well as their presumed authority and objectivity, while funding research that often results in advocating for false solutions and prescriptions “on the go”. -fast” like massive carbon capture, which is unproven at scale, and geoengineering, which is downright dangerous. This is absolutely the wrong way to go.
Geneviève Guenther, Founder and Director of the End Climate Silence Campaign, and affiliated with New School University in New York, said: “Funding research allows oil and gas companies to base their promotional claims on enough truth to give substance with green shadows. in which they hide their most polluting and deadly activities. We must remove fossil fuel interests from our institutions so that our children can have a chance at a livable future.
Universities have for several years been under pressure from their students and some academics to divest their investments, such as pension funds and endowments, away from fossil fuels, and many have done so. However, this is the first major call from top academics to go further and cut all research ties with fossil fuel companies.
There is no clear estimate of the amount of money universities accept from fossil fuel companies, as most do not publish their sources. A survey for the Observer last year found that UK universities alone had taken at least £89million from oil companies in the previous four years.
Some scientists disagree with the letter. James Hansen, former NASA chief scientist and one of the first scientists to warn governments of an impending climate crisis, told the Guardian: “It’s the wrong direction, causing young people to waste their energy in unproductive activities, when in fact they have the potential to lead a solution.
Bob Ward, director of policy at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, said it was reasonable for universities to accept funding from fossil fuel companies if those companies showed a genuine commitment to transform. “Fossil companies truly committed to the transition [to a low-carbon economy], including net-zero emissions, can and should receive support from academic researchers, including for the development of carbon capture and storage, renewable energy and emission reduction technologies. However, universities should be careful about accepting direct or indirect funding from oil, gas and coal companies that are not genuinely committed to the clean energy transition and are trying to green their reputations.
A spokesperson for Imperial College London, which the Observer reported last year had accepted £54million from oil companies since 2017, said: “Decarbonisation is our top priority when working with energy companies. This objective requires a radical change in industrial systems, technologies and business models in the energy sector. We are using our influence and expertise to accelerate this transition and are actively engaging with energy companies to push them to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. We will monitor progress and only continue to work with companies that demonstrate commitment and credible actions to achieve these goals.
Some academics argue that fossil fuel funding is necessary to develop the technologies needed for a low-carbon economy, and that if Western universities reject such funding, it will be accepted in other countries around the world.
Guenther disagrees: “It’s a myth that fossil fuel companies spend large sums to help with the green transition. According to the IEA’s 2021 World Energy Investment Report, only 1% of capital expenditure by fossil energy companies is spent on researching, developing or deploying technologies that reduce or do not produce greenhouse gas emissions.
At the end of this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release the third part of its comprehensive review of climate science, looking at potential ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This will include technologies such as renewable energy and nuclear power, as well as innovative ideas such as sucking carbon dioxide from the air.
The report will shed light on potential technological solutions to the climate crisis, which will require tens or hundreds of billions of pounds of funding to bring to market and widely deploy around the world.
Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist who signed the letter, said funding should come from governments. “The United States and the United Kingdom are among the richest countries on the planet and their governments enjoy complete monetary sovereignty. They have the ability to fund needed research multiple times, at the push of a button. Most of the major innovations and public projects that have changed history over the past century have relied on public research funding,” said Hickel, professor of environmental sciences at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and member of the LSE.
The letter did not specify whether companies with fossil fuel interests within a broader portfolio should be included in the ban. Ilana Cohen, a Harvard student who led the organization of the letter, said it was aimed at the top 200 fossil fuel companies.
Cohen said organizers have so far limited the call to US and UK universities because that’s where many fossil fuel companies focus their funding, but it could be expanded in the future to one. global effort.