UCT’s Convocation votes strongly in favour of fossil fuel divestment – again

Last Thursday, UCT’s Convocation, the body comprising all alumni and academic staff, passed a vote overwhelmingly in favour (40 votes in favour and 8  against) of our motion calling for divestment from fossil fuels, and amendment calling for UCT to lead a coalition for divestment in South Africa.

Convocation is, in theory, a body comprised of over 170,000 living UCT graduates all around the world. In practice, around 70 people attended last week’s meeting. (Not surprisingly, the first motion of the evening proposed that the absent thousands should be able to participate via videoconferencing and electronic voting.) 

In 2017, our first motion to Convocation passed overwhelmingly; you can read it here. (These motions are non-binding, which rather begs the question why they are held at all.)

Our motion last week noted that the climate emergency is accelerating, yet UCT has still not acted decisively:

It is now six years since the Fossil Free UCT campaign first called on the university to phase out over five years all investments in coal, oil and gas – fossil fuels – that are the leading cause of deadly climate breakdown.  In those six years, the global fossil fuel divestment movement has grown from a handful of institutions to well over a thousand, including New York, Paris, London, our own city of Cape Town; a whole country, Ireland; and half of all British universities. Most have continued to get the same or better returns on their investments. The university has made some progress, it has appointed an ethical investment task team, and then a responsible investment panel which is now meeting just four times a year. The new Vice Chancellor has appointed a campus sustainability officer. This is good. But it is nodding to trends, it is not leading, not yet. 

We asked the Vice Chancellor, Council, the University Panel on Responsible Investment, and the Joint Investment Committee to commit at last to real leadership on climate change, that is:

  • to become the first South African and African university to commit loudly and publicly to fossil fuel divestment, 
  • to publicly disclose fossil fuel investments by UCT and the UCT Foundation by the end of January 2020, 
  • to commit to phasing out at least 80% of all equity investments in fossil fuels by the end of 2020, 
  • and to report on progress towards this goal at next year’s Convocation.

In seconding the motion, we also asked the Vice Chancellor to help lead a Climate Emergency Divest Invest Coalition amongst SA universities and foundations:

Please commit R300 million, less than 10% of the current endowment, to seeding a new fossil-free ethical fund. 

Further, in your capacity as a beneficiary of the UCT Retirement Fund, ask Professor Philip de Jager and his fellow trustees to give very serious consideration to supporting this initiative, maybe using 3% (just 3%) of the C Portfolio.

Then please call your peers at Wits and UWC and Stellenbosch and UKZN and say, we as UCT are now committing to seeding at least one very low carbon investment fund – but we’d like to go a step further and unite to pool R1 billion from our respective endowments and any visionary RFs to seed-fund three or four climate-friendly ESG funds. 

Use the stature of your office and profile at a public event to extend the challenge to SA philanthropies, estimated to hold between them anything up to R30 billion. Challenge them to pledge 5% of their respective portfolios to low/no-carbon and renewable energy investments. And then put out a general call to SA asset managers challenging them to compete for a slice of the resulting capital pool. Let’s seed not just one, but several competing funds. If we do this collaboratively, we can do it with very little risk to individual institutions. Further diversifying investment strategies reduces overall portfolio risk. 

This is the opportunity for transformational leadership that lies in front of this university. 

We are able and willing to offer support to your office in administering the roll-out of this strategy; a strategy for implementing an investment thesis that is in line with the ethos of this Institution.

Why is it so crucial that UCT and other South African universities and foundation divest? 

Human beings mostly do not form their opinions by reading the latest journal articles. When an institution, like UCT (and others), that researches the climate emergency, does not act as if there is an emergency, it sends a subliminal signal to the rest of society that there is nothing really to worry about. Surely, our unconscious logic tells us, if there’s no sign of panic from the experts at UCT, then there’s no real need to panic.

For a climate research institution like the University of Cape Town to continue investing in fossil fuels is rather like a doctor smoking in front of patients; it is a particularly destructive example of treating dangerous behaviour as normal.

You can read the full text of our proposed motion, with our amendment, and an amendment made by another member of Convocation calling for campus to become carbon-neutral by 2030, here.

Though we were pleased that our vote passed, it was unfortunately our impression that the motion made little impression on the university authorities. We will not be waiting another two years to propose another motion on divestment, but will be pushing UCT hard in the New Year to listen to the voice of Convocation (and we have little doubt that were the university to electronically extend voting rights to all of Convocation, we would still win).

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