Varsities urged to wean themselves off fossil fuel links

Undergrad group suggests steps such as discontinuing research funding associated with sector

A group of students in Singapore are calling on universities here to wean themselves 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 yesterday, 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 the oil, gas or coal sectors at networking or other professional development events, but instead highlight careers in cleaner industries - such as renewable energy - that do not involve the extraction, refinement or other use of fossil fuels, the report said.

"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."

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 use of coal, oil and gas to fuel 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.

The report delves into the links that the universities, which include Yale-NUS, the Singapore Institute of Technology and the Singapore Institute of Management, have with the fossil fuel sector in four key areas. For instance, the report highlighted the ExxonMobil-NUS Research Fellowship, and the Glencore Scholarship offered at SMU. Oil firm BP has also held a recruitment talk and a personal branding workshop for NTU students, the report noted.

It 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 report, citing ExxonMobil's sponsorship of concerts and conservation programmes at NUS, and a mobile fabrication laboratory at SUTD.

"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.

"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."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2022, with the headline Varsities urged to wean themselves off fossil fuel links. Subscribe