The moral case for divestment from fossil fuels is far from clear cut

Written by Professor Robert Ellam on 22 February 2018 in Comment

Professor Robert Ellam discusses climate change and calls for universities to divest from fossil fuels

Image credit: PA

In recent years it has become fashionable for universities to divest their financial interests in companies that exploit fossil fuels. The phenomenon began in the USA and has gathered momentum in Europe. The moral argument is simple, fossil fuel use is principally responsible for global warming.

The evidence is compelling, climate change is real and fossil fuel burning has increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by more in a single century than the natural cycle varies over 10,000 years. Carbon dioxide levels are the highest ever since humans first walked the planet – although, far from the highest in pre-human geological history. However, no matter how well intended the divestment is, the moral high ground on fossil fuels is contentious.

Enormous progress has been made on the generation of electricity from renewable sources but we in the UK use far more energy for domestic heating and over 8 in 10 of us rely on gas. Nearly a quarter of UK households are in fuel poverty and those without a ready supply of gas spend even more on electricity and oil.

Currently, there is no practical alternative to fossil fuel heating. Without gas, people will die of the cold, so where does that leave the moral high ground? Furthermore, most food production relies on fertilizers that come from fossil fuels. Add to this that gas is the raw material from which we manufacture a multitude of petrochemicals, plastics and pharmaceuticals and the moral superiority of mitigating climate change is looking very ambivalent.

Of course, climate change is a global problem and China has become one of the international whipping boys of global warming. Beijing has a serious air quality problem but has already outlawed petrol-engine motor cycles and China has ambitious targets for electric cars. The trouble is, electric cars are only as carbon neutral as the electricity used to charge them. If you plug your Tesla into a coal-fired source of electricity every evening, that isn’t really solving the problem.

Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that the transformation of China, largely fuelled by coal, has lifted 650 million people out of poverty, reduced female illiteracy by 80 per cent and reduced infant mortality by 70 per cent. Again, the moral maze gets more tortuous.

So, what’s the answer? Well, my view is that we will have to engineer ourselves out of the crisis that we engineered ourselves into. First, we need to be smarter, making domestic heating a community endeavour, so-called “district heating” schemes would be one option; although I note that one of the more successful existing schemes, at Drammen in Norway, uses ammonia, presumably produced from gas, as the heat exchange material.

Second, we need these district heating schemes to be futureproofed for when non-fossil alternatives (e.g. geothermal or Th-cycle nuclear) emerge and they need to be associated with better building standards.

Third, we should make carbon capture and storage (CCS), where carbon dioxide is stored in deep rock formations, a priority. CCS is feasible, the oil industry does it routinely to increase recovery from mature oil fields.

All these are expensive options, but all energy-generation is expensive and what price a habitable planet? Above all, we need to recognise that the expertise we are going to need currently resides in the fossil fuel and nuclear industries. It may turn out that investment in those sectors is actually the better moral choice.

Universities and other long-established institutions need to recognize that there are conflicts between the necessary responses to anthropogenic climate change and the immediate health and welfare of the poorest in society. Fossil fuel divestment may generate favourable publicity, but it doesn’t necessarily provide the intellectual leadership that society should demand from institutions that have a responsibility to influence opinion with informed evidence.

Professor Robert Ellam is Professor of Isotope Chemistry at the University of Glasgow and Director of the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre

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