Undergraduates call on 7 S'pore universities to wean themselves off fossil fuel links

Students around the world have become increasingly vocal about the need to limit global warming to 1.5 deg C above pre-industrial levels to avert harsher climate impact. PHOTO: STUDENTS TAKING ACTION FOR NUS TO DIVEST/FACEBOOK

SINGAPORE - A group of students in Singapore is calling on universities here to wean off their links to the fossil fuel sector, amid growing worldwide scrutiny of the ties between institutes of higher learning and that industry.

Members of the Students for a Fossil Free Future, in a 68-page report published on its website on Monday morning (Jan 17), are calling on seven universities here - including the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Management University (SMU) - to take steps such as divesting from the fossil fuel industry and discontinuing research funding associated with the sector.

Universities should also not promote jobs in oil, gas or coal sectors at networking or other professional development events, but instead highlight career opportunities in cleaner industries - such as renewable energy sectors - that do not involve the extraction, refinement or other use of fossil fuels, the report highlighted.

"These programmes impress upon students the career viability of the fossil fuel industry. However, the fossil fuel industry is a sunset industry, which may limit medium- to long-term career viability," said the report.

The main contributors to the report are students from NUS, NTU, SMU and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), said the group's spokesman, NTU undergraduate Shawn Ang, 23.

But the group also consulted widely and a total of 64 individuals, including undergraduates, university alumni and other professionals, were involved, he added.

The burning of fossil fuels is the main driver of modern climate change.

The use of coal, oil and gas to fuel cities and economies has already caused the planet to warm by 1.1 deg C above pre-industrial levels. Climate scientists have said that global heating should be limited to 1.5 deg C in order to avoid harsher climate impacts, such as rising sea levels and more extreme weather events.

Students around the world have become increasingly vocal about the need to limit warming to this threshold, saying it is their future at stake if the climate crisis is not dealt with today.

Mr Ang said the report aims to shed light on issues beyond finance, such as divestments in fossil fuels.

This is important given not only the financial significance of the fossil fuel industry but also its social influence, he added.

For instance, the report highlighted the ExxonMobil-NUS Research Fellowship, which is sponsored by the oil giant, and the Glencore Scholarship offered at SMU by the commodities firm with stakes in oil and gas.

Oil firm BP has also held a recruitment talk and a personal branding workshop for NTU students, the report noted.

"Given the urgency of the energy transition in the light of the climate crisis... we see our report as a starting point for conversations and imagination around the role that our higher institutions can and should play," said Mr Ang. "We hope that this will encourage discussion and commitment from our university leaders towards playing a more active role in our nation's just transition."

Members of the Students for a Fossil Free Future (clockwise from top left) Golam Rabbani, Ning Yiran, Terese Teoh, Shawn Ang, Tim Min Jie, Sun Woo Yoon, Amanda Koh and Rachel Tey. PHOTO: STUDENTS FOR A FOSSIL FREE FUTURE

The report delves into the links that seven universities in Singapore, which also include Yale-NUS, the Singapore Institute of Technology, the Singapore Institute of Management and SUTD, have with the fossil fuel sector in four key areas.

Other than finance, the report also looked at academia, such as scholarships funded by fossil fuel firms; professional development, such as networking events attended by oil giants; and the association that fossil fuel companies have with campus spaces.

"Singapore's Government has banned cigarette companies from sponsoring and publicising corporate social responsibility activities, clearly signalling that an industry whose core business is harmful should not be positively rebranded," said the students in the report.

On this front, the students cited ExxonMobil's sponsorship of concerts and conservation programmes at NUS, as well as a mobile fabrication laboratory at SUTD.

Mr Ang said putting together the report involved trawling the Internet, combing partnerships and events pages, annual reports, directories of university management and staffing lists wherever they were available.

"Simultaneously, our members from various universities also combed through internal school portals to detail associations and linkages," he said.

After a first draft was completed, the report was circulated to 50 other individuals ranging from undergraduates to academics and other professionals for peer review. The feedback collected then led to two subsequent rounds of editing, with sources being checked and updated where necessary at each round to ensure factual accuracy, said Mr Ang.

The undergraduate team behind the report was inspired by a similar report published by the Cambridge Zero Carbon Society in 2018, called Decarbonising Cambridge: A Pathway To Divestment And Positive Reinvestment, he added.

"As students, we understand the linkages between fossil fuel companies and our universities as a key force that, left alone, will shape our collective futures and determine the world we live in," said Mr Ang.

For example, Mr Ang said the group's networks have shown that many undergraduates secure jobs upon graduation through career and recruitment events at schools.

"These events contain considerable presence from fossil fuel companies, and directly influence where the talent of our society's engineers, scientists and professionals flows to - fossil fuels or more sustainable industries," he added.

Globally, a number of universities have announced plans to start divesting from fossil fuels, including Oxford University, the University of British Columbia, the University of California, Harvard University and National Taiwan University.

 An SMU spokesman said the university was developing its approach to environmental, social and governance issues, including responsible investment.

She added: “We have initiated a process that will take us forward in important ways in the short, medium and long term.”

Representatives from NUS and NTU both pointed to sustainability commitments by their respective institutions, saying the universities are committed to doing their part to tackle the global crisis.

The NTU spokesman said the university’s sustainability framework had involved “substantial consultation, feedback and input from internal and external stakeholders and domain experts”.

He added that the university’s investments – which does not specifically target the fossil fuel industry – enable it to maintain a steady stream of funds to support its long-term growth, while guarding against disruptions, such as having to significantly increase tuition fees during economic downturns.

“Environmental, social and governance considerations are carefully integrated into the investment management process to balance the university’s sustainability objectives with its fiscal health and financial outcomes for the portfolio and endowment fund over the long term,” he said.

The NUS spokesman said that NUS had last year (2021) rolled out a sustainable investment policy incorporating environmental sustainability.

“We will continue to encourage our fund managers to divest from polluting assets,” he said.

“We value the ideas and feedback of our student groups in championing climate action and a sustainable future. We are open to suggestions on how NUS can continue to support environmental sustainability efforts.”

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