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EXCLUSIVE: Students expose suspect investments at St John’s

An open letter from Fossil Free SJC has highlighted the troubling investments made by St John’s College, including investments made in major fossil fuel companies and tobacco. The group, led by students at St John’s, revealed that the College had invested £3.5 million in BP, £4.5 million in Shell, and a further £1.5 million in British American Tobacco. They also released a chain of emails between the campaign, the College, and the two companies, after a petition demanding the College divest from fossil fuels was signed by over 200 students.

In response, Principal Bursar Andrew Parker and Investment Officer John Kay sent letters expressing the concerns of the student body to both companies. Both companies responded by highlighting their investments in alternative energy and emphasising the inevitability of oil and gas production.  

Fossil Free’s letter, published January 13th, claimed that these responses did not “show sufficient activity on behalf of these companies to prevent a climate crisis. We are now calling on the College to introduce a policy prohibiting investment in fossil fuel companies.”

Shell has so far failed to commit to the necessary emissions target reductions for their own proposed goal of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 C. Further, Fossil Free found that this carbon footprint target reduction was a relative, rather than absolute, target, which refers to CO2 intensity per one kilowatt-hour of energy produced. As a result, Shell has failed to commit to the absolute carbon targets specified by the Paris Agreement, IPCC, and UK Climate Change Committee for effective mitigation.

The $2-3 billion invested in “emerging power themes”, in comparison to the $25-29 billion invested in fossil fuel projects between 2021-2024 illustrate that, according to Fossil Free SJC, “Shell’s renewable energy investment efforts are completely immaterial.”

The group also highlight further cause for disappointment with the College’s investment practices. “The work of these companies [have] historically counteracted the charitable aims of the college to further research”. Examples included investing in misinformation campaigns and lobbying to undermine climate-related research.

In addition, Mark Thomas’s response, BP Head of Group of the Chief Executive’s Office, relied heavily upon future progress that is not necessarily commercially available: “with advances in technology and the right supporting policies and regulations, we will be able to decarbonize oil and gas, rapidly expand and store renewable energy and bring abundant, economical low-carbon energy to the market.”

Speaking to The Oxford Blue, Ankit Ranjan, who is the JCR representative of Fossil Free SJC, says “the College has a working group of SCR members, which is meant to review the investment practices,” adding, “but it is moving at a glacial pace, and doesn’t reflect the urgency needed to face the challenge of climate change.”

With regard to the future of the campaign, Ranjan adds, “[we] will be continuing to push College to divest the endowment by providing evidence for the moral, environmental, and financial reasons to divest. We’re hoping that the Governing Body will adopt an environmental policy for its investments this year.

“The students of St John’s have shown overwhelming support for divestments in both the JCR and MCR, so if College governance doesn’t take action, it has to acknowledge that they’re acting against the community’s interests.”

Ranjan is optimistic about the campaign amongst St John’s students. “We’re hopeful. People are beginning to listen, and when you sit down and explain the reasons to divest to someone, mostly everyone understands and agrees. It’s mostly an issue of making sure the governance understands what we’re asking for and why we’re asking”

In an exclusive comment to The Oxford Blue, Andrew Parker, Principal Bursar, said “the College keeps all investments and investment policies under regular review. Its main portfolio advisor assesses all companies with regard to their ethical, social and governance stance and updates its advice to the College on a regular basis.” He added that, “the College is currently engaged in a wide-ranging review of its investment policies, which will report to Governing Body in due course.”

Investments into companies accelerating the climate crisis via fossil fuel energy production and the funding of misinformation campaigns are not the only questionable practices taken by St John’s. 220 acres of prime farmland owned by St John’s has been approved by the College to be converted into a gravel quarry near Barford, in Warwickshire.

Local residents have issued over 1,000 complaints to the council and have taken their anger to St John’s College itself. In May last year many from the Barford Resident Association attended an organised protest directly outside the College on St Giles’. Despite this, the College still intends to carry out the plan. 

In Trinity Term 2019, a standing policy motion titled “Green Space Not Grey” was passed with no votes against and two abstentions. It highlighted major concerns, including dust pollution, noise pollution, and sight pollution. The dust pollution, a proven threat to health, is emphasised given the presence of a primary school, which lies within a kilometre of the proposed quarry site. 

The motion resolved to request transparency from the College regarding the reasons for approval, but was unsuccessful in persuading the College to engage with the JCR. Sam Gunatilleke, proposer of the motion, explains that “when we approached (the College) in Trinity they declined to comment apart from giving us their public statement on the matter.”

The conversion plan is currently actively under consideration and St John’s have said they engaged in correspondence with the the Residents Association and the local MP, Matt Western (Labour). They have stated that they “are aware of the concerns that (the Residents Association) are raising,” adding that “the College will not allow any activity that is contrary to the local authority’s advice on environmental and safety issues.” The College also expressed their intention to “continue with Warwickshire County Council’s Minerals development framework timetable while being very aware of the local residents’ concerns and our social responsibility as a landowner and registered charity.” A hearing is organised to be held on 3 June 2020 for an examination of the Warwickshire Minerals Plan.