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Student coalition highlights 'extensive' links between Singapore universities and fossil fuel industry, urges full divestment by 2030

Student coalition highlights 'extensive' links between Singapore universities and fossil fuel industry, urges full divestment by 2030

A student writes a message on a board to support climate action and clean energy transition. (Photo: Students Taking Action for NUS to Divest)

SINGAPORE: A coalition of students in Singapore has called on universities to transition away from the fossil fuel industry by 2030, as part of a report the group released on Monday (Jan 17) detailing "extensive" links between the parties.

Titled Fossil-Fuelled Universities, the 68-page report highlighted linkages between the fossil fuel industry and universities in areas including finance and management.

It was published by Students for a Fossil Free Future (S4F), a coalition made up of 40 students from the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore Management University (SMU), Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Yale-NUS College.

According to the report, NUS and NTU both have endowment funds that are "indirectly" invested in fossil fuels.

For NUS, this sum is "at least S$59 million" – a figure the report deduced from a statement given by NUS Investment Office in March 2019 that the university's indirect investment in fossil fuels made up a "low single digit" percentage of its total endowment fund which, as of 2021, stood at S$5.9 billion.

NTU's investments had "minimal exposure to the fossil fuel industry" but the report was unable to put a figure to it as the university did not disclose the size of its exposure compared to its total endowment fund of S$2.5 billion.

The other four local universities contacted by the student coalition - SMU, SUTD, SIM Global Education and Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) - did not disclose their exposure to fossil fuel-linked assets, the report said.

"By investing in the fossil fuel industry, universities both financially support the industry and demonstrate confidence in the industry to deliver long-term returns," the authors said.

They added that divesting from fossil fuels will send a "clear social signal" that continued fossil-fuel reliance is "backward-looking", and companies that do so will be left behind.

BOARD MEMBERS, SCHOLARSHIPS WITH FOSSIL FUEL LINKS

Beyond fossil fuel-linked investments, the report also raised concerns about possible "conflicts of interest", pointing out the presence of fossil fuel industry leaders - past and present - sitting on university boards.

"We also recognise that Board members may have ceased working for fossil fuel companies precisely to pursue more sustainable careers or align their careers with their personal values," said the coalition. "We encourage such members to share about their decision or rationale with the university or public.

"Given that Board members have significant social standing and influence, such sharing will increase the importance which the public, students, and educators place on sustainability and combating climate change," the report added.

The report also highlighted linkages in academia, where some scholarships and awards were funded by companies with links to the fossil fuel industry.

The report gave examples of bursaries awarded by the likes of Shell, ExxonMobil, Keppel Offshore & Marine, Glencore and Geo Energy Group, a coal mining and trading company.

"CO-OPTING" OF CAMPUS SPACES

The report was also critical of what it termed the "co-opting" of campus spaces by fossil fuel companies.

It gave the example of the ExxonMobil Campus Concerts series in NUS, a sponsorship that started in 1986.

While the report recognised the value of the event in giving students opportunities to put up music performances, it said the sponsorship also allowed ExxonMobil to "promote itself to a wide university audience (and) cultivate a positive image and downplay their environmentally and socially harmful activities".

"These companies can thus capitalise on universities' reputations to improve their own brand image among university or public stakeholders who attend these events and use these spaces," the report said.

"Such practices also normalise the ubiquitous presence of fossil fuel companies that are active contributors to the climate crisis."

The report drew a parallel between fossil fuel companies putting their names behind campus events and the Singapore Government's ban on cigarette companies sponsoring and publicising corporate social responsibility activities.

"Fossil fuel companies who have not credibly committed to a post-carbon transition should not be allowed to purchase positive branding and social acceptance from our universities," the report said.

"The withdrawal of such positive branding, and associated social legitimacy, may incentivise these companies to seriously reconsider their core operations."

CNA has sought comment from the universities named in the report.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The report presented a set of recommendations for universities to address the fossil fuel industry’s "associations" with "professional development functions" of the universities.

They include divesting all financial holdings from fossil fuel companies and fossil fuel-linked assets by 2030, as well as developing plans to secure alternative modes of funding from companies committed to reducing carbon emissions.

The report also called for climate crisis education to be implemented in all universities in one to two years.

The student coalition described the report as a "ground-up, independent research effort" by more than 60 people, including current students, alumni, academics, civil society members and lawyers.

"This extensive work is the culmination of three years of effort, and testifies to the urgency and severity all of us across generations feel towards the climate crisis and transitioning away from fossil fuels," said Mr Shawn Ang, a member of the S4F team.

"As students, we're constantly worried about backlash, censorship, and reprisal from publicly questioning the status quo," said Mr Ang, who is a third-year undergraduate student at NTU.

"Yet, we press on and dedicate countless hours, weekends, and months of our lives to this, knowing that our short window of time to act to ensure our planet remains habitable is almost gone. We cannot rest without doing everything we can."

The release of the report on Monday also marked the start of a two-week campaign, which aims to get universities to be more active and to take bold steps to address the climate crisis.

As part of this, students, professionals, university leaders and the public will be invited to join discussions online and across local campuses about the report's findings and recommendations.

"What's more important than getting the report out is trying to generate some excitement and discussion over the issues that we're raising," said Ms Ning Yiran, who is also a member of the S4F team.

"We are not trying to dictate what schools should do but we actually want to start the conversation about the transition away from fossil fuels and how universities can play a leading role."

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said NUS had endowment funds with at least S$5.9 million indirectly invested in fossil fuels. The correct figure should be S$59 million. We apologise for the error.

Source: CNA/vl(ac)

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