Newcastle’s biggest university says no to more coal

A city built on coal wealth is turning away from the fossil fuel. Or at least, its biggest university is.

Newcastle University has become the most recent UK university pledging to divest from fossil fuels. The university joins a growing number of UK schools that have moved toward investments in alternative energy solutions.

Newcastle’s decision comes on the heels of similar announcements last year by 10 other UK schools.

Phil Taylor, professor at Newcastle University and director of the Institute of Sustainability, contributed to the divestment campaign spearheaded by members of the Newcastle University Student Union. “The portfolio that is being divested by Newcastle University is relatively small on a global scale," Taylor says, "but it’s a big statement and many other organizations are moving in the same direction.”

According to the activist organization gofossilfree.org, $3.4 trillion has already been divested from fossil fuels globally.

Divestment from fossil fuel is still far from predominant in higher education. There has certainly been pushback among universities in the US, for example. Newcastle’s decision is not without complications of its own. The university’s press release commits to investing in “progressive companies that are working toward low-carbon solutions.”

This language allows some room for interpretation by the university. According to Taylor, Newcastle will continue partial investments in fossil fuels through energy companies as long as they are moving toward renewable energy, despite maintaining holdings in oil and gas.

DONG Energy is one such company that Newcastle University would consider “progressive,” despite large holdings in both oil and gas, because of its role in developing the world’s largest wind farm outside of London.

Such compromises are necessary in the divestment campaign, Taylor argues, because these “progressive” energy companies have the capital resources to fund large-scale renewable energy projects.

As Taylor makes clear, the work is far from over. Now Newcastle University will try to navigate its own previous investment commitments, while minimizing funding of companies that contribute to climate change.