When I ran for this role in February 2022, one of my core aims was to campaign for climate justice at the University. Having been involved in Oxford Climate Justice Campaign (OCJC) since my first year, I was adamant that the University and colleges needed to do more, particularly on their relationships to the fossil fuel industry, and the college’s more overall lack of sustainability commitments. Having now been campaigning loudly on these issues for a whole year and getting a seat at the table in University committees, this is an opportunity to reflect, and also tell students a bit about what’s been going down!
So what does ‘campaigning loudly’ at the Student Union really mean? Well, for me it has looked like a variety of things. It has meant publicly releasing demands to the colleges, working through the committee system by researching, consulting on and presenting policy proposals, learning about best practise on sustainable investments across the sector, amongst other strategies. And have we actually got anywhere? Well, I’m certainly not leaving the year feeling like everything I was concerned about has been solved, that’s for sure. But I do believe the SU being vocal on these issues throughout the year has not gone unnoticed.
In November 2022, following consultation with the brilliant group of students that is college Environment reps, I worked to release a set of three sustainability demands, broadly aimed at getting the colleges to be at least as ambitious as the central University with its sustainability commitments by March 2023. Following this release, I communicated with colleges regarding these, and in March 2023, created a tracker so students could visibly see progress (or lack thereof). What this tracker has shown is that we now have 10 colleges committed to at least net zero by 2035, but that the vast majority of colleges are still yet to make such commitments, and that no college has a sustainability strategy covering the elements we are asking for, in line with the central University’s strategy. I am hopeful that our campaign has ensured that in every room we’re in with the colleges, they know students are vocally calling for more ambitious action. I do feel that the colleges and University are working much closer at the end of my term than at the beginning, and that more colleges are seriously considering staffing up their sustainability work. There is still a huge way to go, and I hope students will continue both within the SU and outside of it, vocally calling for action.
Another key priority for me coming into this role, was to further the work OCJC had done in getting the University to remove any legitimacy it currently gives to the fossil fuel industry. Soon after I started this role, the University published its guidelines on the acceptance of research funding from fossil fuel companies. These guidelines are a step in the right direction, and no doubt were developed because of the work of student activists calling out the University’s cooperation with the industry. However, they do not go far enough, as crucially they only require companies to have a ‘credible net zero plan’ without elaborating on what this credibility means. Because of this, throughout the year, I have been repeatedly calling on the University to strengthen these guidelines by adding a line: ‘These plans for net zero must include a commitment to cease development of new fossil fuel infrastructure and/ or exploration of new fossil fuel reserves’. As I’ve repeatedly made the case to the University, including the Vice-Chancellor, this necessity for the fossil fuel industry to stop new fossil fuel developments is essential, given the IPCC, IEA, and Global Energy Monitor have all confirmed new oil, coal or gas development is incompatible with reaching net zero emissions by 2050, and limiting heating to the 1.5 degree goal. Given the dozen largest fossil fuel companies are planning to spend $103 million a day between now and 2030 on exploiting new oil and gas fields, I have been arguing that the University must use all its reputational power to move the industry away from this current path, by stopping working with them until they change. On the research guidelines in particular, I haven’t seen progress on changes to the wording during my term, but I know the University is planning to review the guidelines and have them be informed by academic expertise, so this gives some hope that they will be strengthened. In any case, it is clear that students must remain vocal in their calls for these guidelines to be strengthened.
As well as through this work on the University’s research guidelines, a large part of my work this year on this topic has been writing, consulting on, and presenting a paper, proposing that the University stop advertising fossil fuel companies in the careers service. This follows a motion passing at our student council for us to support the campaign, and the case for fossil free careers is made strong when considering the industry continues to operate in a way which directly opposes the commitments the international community and this University have agreed to. The University, through ESSC, did not approve my proposal, as they felt it was too blunt an instrument. One argument against the proposal is citing the industry’s renewables contribution – but, given the industry’s renewable investments are dwarfed by their fossil fuel investments (at only 5% in 2022), this argument greenwashes their operations. We know the University actively taking a stance not to work with the industry does have an impact, and so I believe this remains a crucial campaign, and one which the University is now fully aware of and considering. I believe it is likely the University will adopt a similar approach to careers as it has to research, and if this is the case, it will be better than no policy, but until the research guidelines are made more robust, it again risks publicly greenwashing companies by asserting they have a ‘credible net zero plan’.
With regards to further fossil fuel ties, one of the other commitments on my manifesto was strengthening fossil fuel divestment – getting more colleges to divest, and increasing University transparency of their investments. What I hadn’t realised when I wrote my manifesto, was that a lot of my year would actually be spent calling for the University to do more than just divest (which it has done, although there are concerns about indirect fossil fuel exposure going up…), and focusing on how it engages with its whole portfolio of investments. For this work, I have to give huge thanks to Zak Coleman, at SOS-UK, who has been incredible at teaching me the financial lingo and knowledge I needed to approach this. On a University level, this work has meant I have been calling for much faster progress on engaging robustly, including focusing engagement on those most closely involved in facilitating fossil fuel expansion (banks, insurance companies, utilities companies etc). On a college level, this work meant equipping students with the support they need to lobby for divestment – something Zak has also been hugely helpful with. Finally, on a similar topic, I’ve also been lobbying for the University to engage with its bank on its financing of fossil fuel projects. I’m yet to see evidence of progress on this, although I am told engagement is now happening – this is a crucial area students should keep the pressure on for.
As these policy discussions might suggest, quite a lot of my work has been inward University facing on policy work. However, I’ve also had the pleasure of organising a number of more student facing events, most notably the Social Action Fair with Oxford Hub and the SU’s first Clothes Swap which was just the kind of vibes I love to see at the University. I have also been working closely with the campaign to keep the immigration detention centre ‘Campsfield’ closed, following a motion passing at Student Council for us to join the campaign. Together with students involved in the campaign, we have collected signatures for, and launched University’ Open Letter to Keep Campsfield Closed, hosted an exhibition in the SU on the history of the campaign, and I have been raising the campaign with stakeholders around the University. Whilst this may not seem directly related to ‘sustainability’, it really is – in a world where people are increasingly made to leave their homes by the climate crisis, we need to resist the systems which brutalise migrants (but ofc we should be doing this anyway...).
On a broader note, the SU certainly has a long was to go for students to really feel it is their Union, but I leave the year feeling hopeful that the change needed is possible, and that the people who work at the SU do genuinely want it to be a Union directed by, and for students, and one which is capable of directing real meaningful change. I’d like to end with a huge thank you to all those who have supported me through what hasn’t been an easy year – you know who you are. And to current and future students, keep up the pressure on climate justice at the University and beyond because IT WORKS (albeit often much slower than we need)!