News and updates

Knowledge and Power report published

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A new report written by Ric Lander on behalf for People & Planet, Platform and 350.org has exposed the extent to which the fossil fuel industry is financially interconnected with UK universities.

The report, Knowledge and Power – Fossil Fuel Universities, reveals that UK universities have an estimated £5.2 billion invested in the fossil fuel industry, equivalent to £2,083 for every student in the UK. Using data obtained through Freedom of Information requests and crowd-sourced from students and staff at universities across the UK, it also reveals the weaknesses of our university’s current ethical investment policies.

And the ties go much deeper than purely financial support. The report accuses universities of ‘greenwashing’ a sector whose business model relies on burning 5 times more carbon than is safe to avoid a climate crisis. For example, senior executives from BP and Shell have received 20 awards and honorary degrees from UK universities in the last decade alone, providing them with valuable legitimacy and a ‘social license to operate’.

Kevin Smith from oil and gas watchdog Platform said:

“UK universities have become the victims of corporate capture at the hands of the fossil fuel sector. We are allowing vital public infrastructure to be used to subsidise and expand a dangerous, out-dated energy model that only benefits the profits of oil and gas companies.”

The report is the most comprehensive assessment to date of UK universities ties to the fossil fuel industry, and paints a damning picture of the industry’s influence over research agendas. For example, of the 258 papers published by the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies, only three focussed on renewables, whilst the Institute received more than half of its grants from oil and gas companies. In 2013 Imperial College London has more research funding from fossil fuel companies than any other UK institution, receiving £17.3 million from Shell and BP alone.

The report coincides with the launch of People & Planet’s Fossil Free UK divestment campaign.  In collaboration with 350.org co-founder and acclaimed author Bill McKibben, students will embark on a UK tour to kickstart the divestment movement in a fortnight.

Story courtesy of People & Planet.

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Cairn Energy in the Arctic Casino

Founders foesand chair of the Greenland Oil Industry Association, Edinburgh based Cairn Energy are by far the most active oil company in Greenland.

This report, written by Ric Lander for Friends of the Earth Scotland’s new Corporate Accountability campaign, details Cairn’s risky prospecting in the high Arctic. The briefing examines chemical spills, threats to marine wildlife, safety concerns, and the complex web of political and financial links which make Arctic drilling possible.

Cairn Energy: Arctic Cowboys – Executive Summary

  • Edinburgh-based Cairn Energy is by far the largest oil company operating in Greenland. They founded and chair the Greenland Oil Industry Association and have drilled eight out of the fourteen wells ever drilled offshore in Greenland.
  • Cairn admit that all of their operations in Greenland are in areas “sensitive in terms of biodiversity”. Numerous sensitive habitats and IUCN red-listed species inhabit the areas in which they operate including Blue Whale, Sei Whale, Narwhal, Walrus, White-tailed Eagle, Hooded Seal and Polar Bear.
  • Cairn refused to publish a spill response plan for their operations but in 2011, following a high-profile campaign by Greenpeace, the plan was published by the Greenlandic Government.
  • The plan has multiple shortcomings, most crucially that Cairn’s plan is not adequate to enable a full and speedy clean-up of the kind of spill which could happen in the area. It is likely that a spill would have catastrophic impacts on the Arctic environment.
  • Despite specific policy claims to reduce pollution rates, Cairn’s emissions of green-house gas emissions, NOx, VOCs have all increased over the last five years.
  • Cairn has received millions of pounds of funding from UK taxpayers via the bailed out UK banks RBS and Lloyds Group, and the World Bank division the ‘International Finance Corporation’.
  • David Cameron personally intervened to help Cairn raise money which was used to finance their Arctic drilling campaign.
  • Cairn have relationships with a number of charitable and educational institutions in Scotland including the Universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt, and the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.
  • After two years of failure, Cairn have not been actively drilling in the Arctic in 2012, and may pull out of the region all together if they are under enough pressure.
  • Investment managers are beginning to see that the risks of Arctic drilling are making them an increasingly poor investment.
  • Friends of the Earth Scotland are calling for a final end to Cairn’s operations in Greenland and a moratorium on the operations of Scottish oil companies in the Arctic.

The full report can be downloaded in full from Friends of the Earth Scotland:

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Transition Universities in the Transition Companion

This article was written in early 2011 and published in Rob Hopkin’s book ‘the Transition Companion’, published in October 2011.  You can buy the book from Transition Network here and read most of its chapters online here.

Transition in Action: Transition Edinburgh University
by Ric Lander

Inspired by a simple and purposeful talk introducing Transition, a small group of students and staff decided to do what we could as a community to see a low-carbon transition take place. We asked “What do we want our university community to look like?”

Some things seemed just right: world-leading teaching and research in environmental issues like carbon management was already striding ahead; thriving student community groups; campuses powered by locally generated heat and power; canteens serving a good deal of local food; and the profile of Fair Trade was high and rising.

We saw other things too, though. A student and staff mainstream hooked on consumerism and high-carbon exploits, an academic culture driven by internationalisation and globalisation, and many disconnected students and staff with no links to their peers. Good things were happening, but bigger things were holding them back.

So Transition Edinburgh University set its mission to inspire big changes by putting practical action on climate change centre stage at Edinburgh University. Our Food Working Group begun bringing local veg and organic everything straight to students and staff. We’ve been reusing the unwanted possessions of freshers by passing them on to next year’s students. And, with help from the Scottish Government, we ran a two-year project cutting energy usage in student homes, helping people choose local, flying-free holidays, and raising awareness with campus Go Green Weeks, photography exhibitions and courses like Carbon Conversations.

We are not a department, a committee, a coalition, or an umbrella group. What we are is a space where things happen; some ambitious, some just fun. We move forward as part of other groups and others as a part of us.

And we’ve taken our ideas beyond Edinburgh. As part of the People & Planet network we have helped hundreds of fellow groups start projects at their universities and colleges, many of them running the Going Greener campaign, which we have helped develop and spread. We have also worked with staff unions and the National Union of Students, who are making great strides as well. Informal and informal networks have all proved key.

The role of universities in making change is crucial. Built to innovate and design the future, they are where challenges are met with solutions and become implementable. They must be part of the transition.

Our story is useful further still. Like businesses, societies, trade unions, schools, libraries and charities, we are a community of interest, not of place. In engaging such a community, we are overcoming the challenge of a dispersed and transient population. Yet the value of this work remains – after all, it is in such spaces that people work, grow and, often, find meaning.

  • You can read more about what happened at Transition Edinburgh University in my post here.
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Reducing the climate impact of the Edinburgh University community

The University of Edinburgh’s radical carbon reduction project ‘Transition Edinburgh University’ published a broad ranging report considering potential carbon reduction measures and giving the first comprehensive view of a university population’s carbon footprint.

Findings of the study, edited by Ric Lander and Oliver Cooper, were published in the Guardian on 8 December 2009 (‘How One University is Facing the 10:10 Challenge‘). A summary follows.

Footprints and Handprints: the Edinburgh University community’s climate impact and how we can begin reducing it – Executive Summary

Footprints and Handprints brings together the collective experience of Transition Edinburgh University (TEU) over its first year. Prepared by group members and staff-interns Oliver Cooper and Ric Lander, it is the first significant research output of the group and covers key concepts, the internal working arrangement of the group, an estimation of the carbon footprint of the Edinburgh University community and proposals for future action.

Climate change, according to the scientific community, is caused largely by human activity and poses a dire threat to the ability of our planet to sustain us. Peak oil is the peaking of oil production and the beginning of the end of a cheap, abundant oil supply. This twin threat requires ambitious solutions if it is to be overcome. With government action slow and insufficient, Edinburgh University needs to respond as a community in order to overcome these challenges. Thee Transition model – a framework for community action originating from Kinsale in Ireland – suggests an invigorating and exciting way in which we can create a positive and prosperous future. TEU formed in October 2009 to find a way to adapt the this model to fit a University community. It was instrumental in encouraging the adoption of Transition by People & Planet UK network in March 2009 and received funding from the Climate Challenge Fund to develop the concept further at Edinburgh, over Summer 2009. TEU is now a thriving community group embedded in the University and draws great strength from being a core part of the University, the Transition movement, and the student environmental movement.

TEU has been working with four aims:

  1. to investigate energy use and carbon emissions in our community and record achievements in reducing them;
  2. to increase awareness and involvement of the 35,000-strong community in action on climate change and peak oil;
  3. to take practical action to reduce energy use, cut carbon emissions, and relocalise our community; and
  4. to build, publicise and transfer a set of tools to support Transition groups in similar and surrounding communities.

The group believes that University staff and students must work together as a community to achieve these aims and that TEU’s task is to facilitate this effort; that working collectively and non-hierarchically is the most effective way to achieve these changes; and that clear analysis, a practical approach, and a desire to educate, understand and be part of a global solution are all key themes that the group should work towards.

Over our year together as a group, TEU has developed an open model of working which we believe achieves our aims efficiently, empowers group members and facilitates skills development. TEU staff and community members (students and staff at the University) work together in themed working groups on areas such as travel, aiming to reduce the energy-use of travel, and residences, aiming to reduce the energy used in buildings. TEU staff and community members work together in open working spaces where possible, and come together for fortnightly plenary meetings to celebrate successes and coordinate action. The group is supported with training, materials, working spaces, and formal and informal mentoring. Much of this work has been backed up by funding from our initial Climate Challenge Fund grant. A second more ambitious bid has been submitted to the fund and we are awaiting a response. We have also relied on support from the University of Edinburgh Energy & Sustainability Office and Edinburgh University People & Planet Society.

A carbon calculation study for the University community was carried out over the Summer of 2009, aiming to make existing data more relevant and accessible, to highlight areas where data is currently missing and to give staff and students a general picture of where their greenhouse gas emissions occur. It addresses the institutional footprint of the University of Edinburgh and the “lifestyle” footprint (emissions made at home at leisure) of its 10,000 staff and 26,000 students. It is intended to be as broad and inclusive as possible, measuring our impact from direct emissions as well as giving a picture of indirect emissions – those emitted elsewhere in order to provide us with goods and services, which is often overlooked by conventional studies. Preliminary findings suggest that the annual greenhouse gas footprint of the University community is approximately 350,000 tonnes of CO2 e emissions per year. Of this figure, only 50,000 tonnes (14%) is estimated to be directly resulting from institutional activities, with the remaining 86% attributable to staff and student lifestyles. Not including their ‘institutional activities’, the average community member is estimated to produce 8.3 tonnes of CO2e emissions per year. This would comprise 2.3 tonnes CO2 e from domestic energy use, 2.2 tonnes from travel and 3.8 tonnes from goods and services – although the total is thought to be an underestimate, particularly with respect to emissions from travel activities. The study found that the University Estates and Buildings and University Accommodation Services hold useful data regarding energy use in their buildings, but found that the University lacked records for CO2 e attributable to procured goods and services.

Opportunities for action for TEU, the University, and other groups abound, including practical projects to reduce energy-use and carbon emissions, projects to broaden engagement in the transition, projects to spread the idea of Transition further afield, and proposals for further research work. Proposed projects respond to the problems highlighted by the carbon calculation study and build on schemes already running or in development include: a Green Dragons Den where inventors and entrepreneurs develop carbon-saving business ideas with the winner’s being implemented; an Inter-halls Energy Saving Competition, where halls of residence compete to lower energy-use; Veggie-food days, where the carbon-saving qualities of lower-meat diets are promoted; Free-shop and share, where students and staff exchange unwanted items to reduce waste and consumption; the Big Green Makeover, where students and staff are offered supported to make homes more energy efficient; Transition TV, showcasing new and exciting transition ideas; peer-learning programmes such as Carbon Conversations, which are pre-designed courses where participants discuss emotional responses to climate change and peak oil; a green travel fair to promote low-carbon journeys and holidays; a series of high-profile speaker events in the University; and conferences engaging the city community and the wider academic community in Transition.

We also propose that further research is carried out to improve our picture of the community’s carbon footprint and build a complete long-term plan for a green transition. The University has done some work towards recording CO2 e emissions attributable to goods and services procured and this should be commended, but bought services (flights, trains etc.), a significant contributor to the

University’s institutional footprint, are not yet coherently recorded. Much more work is required to give a complete picture of “lifestyle” emissions, as somewhat sweeping assumptions have been required to create estimates of emissions for domestic energy, travel and goods & services. Further research, including surveying the University population, is urgently required to establish a lifestyle greenhouse gas footprint that is more specific to the university community. Parallel to large scale quantitative studies such as these, there is a need for additional studies that provide more context to the picture of the university’s ecological impact. Finally, a clear plan for the future is required, including working towards a holistic “Energy Descent Action Plan”, which gives a vision and a path for a community response to peak oil and climate change. This research can be carried out with the help of TEU staff and community members, and we also see University courses including student dissertations as excellent ways in which students can be engaged in this effort.

A full copy of the report can be obtained from People & Planet (UK) at the following link:

This article is adapted from a post on the Transition Edinburgh University blog.  You can read more about what happened at Transition Edinburgh University in my post here.

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