European Universities Cut Fossil Fuel Funding. Activists Say U.S. Schools Should Too

A German university implemented a policy refusing funding from companies that don't adhere to the Paris Climate Agreement. These student activists are fighting for the same policies at their institutions in the U.S.
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Published on August 25, 2023
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  • VU Amsterdam will no longer accept research collaborations with companies that don't adhere to the Paris Climate Agreement.
  • The director for Fossil Free Research said it's no longer enough for an institution to divest — it must address fossil fuel research funding.
  • At Stanford University, students are riding the momentum from the new School of Sustainability to fight for fossil fuel divestment and fossil-free research.

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in Germany is pushing fossil-free research toward the tipping point of normalcy by showing that fossil-free research policy is possible.

VU Amsterdam announced on April 20 that it will no longer enter new research collaborations with fossil fuel companies that cannot commit to the Paris Climate Agreement. Erasmus University Rotterdam's Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands accepted a similar policy about a month prior.

Jake Lowe, director for Fossil Free Research (FFR) and 2022 George Washington University alum, said Princeton has the most comprehensive fossil fuel dissociation policy in the United States. Still, VU Amsterdam is leaps and bounds ahead.

Lowe hopes other universities claiming to be climate leaders will notice and back that up with a fossil-free research policy instead of just fossil fuel divestment. Otherwise, research funded by the fossil fuel industry could put academic freedom at risk, according to a recent report finding over $500 million in fossil fuel funding at universities over 10 years. Researchers might "avoid conclusions" that would lead investors to drop their funding.

"It's one thing to approach your university and ask them to adopt a policy that nobody's heard of before, or nobody's done before," Lowe said. "It's scary to be the first."

Unlike fossil fuel divestment, which is a complete cut from direct and indirect investments in the industry, fossil-free research wins are much more opaque.

"Which funders do we include, which ones do we exclude, what types of university funding relationships do we consider?" Lowe asked. "Do we just think about research, or do we think about all the ways you can fund a university?"

How Does the Fossil-Free Research Policy Stack Up to College Activists?

"From now on, VU Amsterdam has decided to only enter into new research collaborations with companies from the fossil fuel energy sector that demonstrably commit, in the short term, to the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement, and the level of decarbonisation required to limit the temperature increase to a maximum of 2°C, and ideally to 1.5°C," VU Amsterdam's policy says.

The key comes in VU Amsterdam's straightforward language.

"We've pretty much confirmed that the university is going to interpret Shell as being at least one of those companies," Lowe said. "Even though Shell maybe has claimed that it's aligned with Paris, the specific language in there — that's really key. There's two words, 'demonstrably' and 'in the short term.'"

Shell is not on Princeton's dissociation list.

While this policy is enormous for fossil fuel research policies, Lowe said it's not perfect. Ongoing programs with fossil fuel research funding will continue until complete — they just won't be renewed.

The policy leaves room for professorship sponsors from the fossil fuel industry, which could influence curriculums. Fossil Free Research is confident that won't happen at VU Amsterdam since it believes the administration is generally skeptical of the fossil fuel industry.

"What we would consider more of a win would be a research or a funding policy that applies to all the different ways you could fund a university," he said. "Climate research is problematic, but so is an ExxonMobil Auditorium or something like that — just problematic in different ways."

Riding the Momentum

At Stanford University in California, Amanda Campos, a first-year and FFR member, is riding the momentum from Stanford's new School of Sustainability to bring divestment and fossil-free research to the university.

She got involved in climate activism through a class where her professor inspired her to write a research paper on fossil fuel funding at Stanford.

The movement at Stanford is taking one initiative at a time.

"It [VU Amsterdam] definitely doesn't have as many fossil fuel ties as Stanford," said Campos. "So really, here, we're really focusing on the existing fossil fuel ties."

Campos admires the VU Amsterdam's urgency of addressing the climate crisis.

She said regardless of research proving otherwise, some schools will stick to the losing argument that fossil fuel dissociation is too challenging and that schools need to cooperate with fossil fuels to support the slow transition to renewable energy.

"Regardless of the fact they're actively enabling and inhibiting action to combat climate change," said Campos.

Lowe said the fossil fuel divestment campaign is a little over a decade old and is now more accepted in society. Though divestment is still alive and well, it's no longer enough for an institution.

"With fossil-free research, we have the benefit of gaining strength from all that momentum and all the headway that the divestment movement made," said Lowe. "So I don't think it will take another decade for fossil-free research to be as normalized as divestment is now."