By Aoife Hutton


GOOD NEWS. We’re halfway there.

The road towards full Divestment for Otago

At the end of July this year, staff and students welcomed the University of Otago Foundation Trust’s decision to divest from fossil fuel exploration and extraction. This is a very significant step. It adds Otago to the growing list of institutions worldwide that have recognised a need to change the way we do things.

Pic of Petition Stall

Having been involved in the divestment campaign at the University of Edinburgh, I can appreciate the sheer amount of effort that must have been put in by those involved in order to reach this point. When I arrived at Otago uni on exchange at this start of this semester, and I saw an ‘OtagoUniDivests’ flyer, it gave me hope. Hope to see that people over the world are making a stand, putting up a fight, acting for change. But we still have work to do. 

The next step for the campaign here in Otago is to push for the University Council to make a similar commitment to divestment and adopt an ethical investment policy that disallows any future investment in fossil fuel companies. The University’s endowment funds are divided across two bodies; the Foundation Trust and the Council. Although Otago Uni’s Foundation Trust didn’t, at the time of the decision, hold any investments in the areas of ‘extraction or exploration’ of fossil fuels, commitment to divestment safeguards against future investments in these activities. Moving away from fossil fuel exploration represents a massive step forward, and sends a clear message that the future will be different.

Although the direct monetary effect of divestment on oil companies holds some influence, this is not the primary motive for divestment – and this is what we, as campaigners, are trying to communicate to the University Council. It’s about doing everything we can to challenge the system, to create dialogue and effect change. Universities are a testament to the future, a hub for innovation, learning and creativity, a myriad of young minds. This makes them particularly important players in the divestment movement.

The onus now falls on the University Council to follow suit and join the ripple of 45 universities worldwide who have already committed to divestment. I see it as the inevitable next step. We know, and have always known, that fossil fuels are a finite resource. We know that we need to transition to low carbon energies before they run out, in fact, we know that in order to keep the global temperature rise below 2°C, 80% of known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground.

Divestment is a logical method of catalysing this transition, with the delegitimisation of the fossil fuel industry at its core. Influential bodies publically distancing themselves from fossil fuels might just be the cog in the machine needed to speed up our actions. The more attention which can be drawn to the damaging effects of the fossil fuel industry, and the more public demand we can rally, the stronger the spotlight shines on our decision makers in politics to commit to actual transitions. This is particularly important in the lead up to COP21 talks in Paris next month. Because we really don’t have time to not act, or to wait any longer. Divestment must happen. This is our future, and Otago University should lead by example.

The case for divestment at The University of Otago began just over a year ago when 24 senior academics came together to write a series of letters to the university outlining the case for cutting ties with fossil fuels. Since then, the campaign has grown in support amongst students, staff and alumni, and the petition has now tipped 1,300 signatures. Add your name to the list right here:

Sister Cities, global goals: Divestment in Edinburgh and Dunedin

In my final months in Edinburgh I became swept up by our own campus movement for divestment. Student led. Intersectional. Inspirational. Friends of mine had been campaigning hard over the past 3 years to get divestment brought to the table on the council at the University of Edinburgh; petitions, meetings, debates, discussions, which led to the eventual release of a ‘Fossil Fuels Review Group Report’ from the University.

Disappointingly, in the report, no solid commitments to divest were recommended. Instead, a strategy of engagement was proposed ‘to change the behaviour’ of fossil fuels companies. Divestment from coal and tar sands (not oil or natural gas) was proposed in a fairly non-binding way – ‘where alternatives exist’ (they do!) and only after an undefined ‘engagement period’. Reasons cited for not committing to full divestment ranged from ‘academic freedom’ (dubious, since when did paying money to unethical companies ensure academic freedom?) to ‘human rights concerns’, an argument which seems to be completely oblivious to the fact that the effects of climate change is the BIGGEST human rights issue facing us.

In shying away from any actual commitment to divest, The University of Edinburgh ignored the urgency of climate change, and allowed the reputation of fossil fuel companies to yet again be protected under the guise of ‘but they might change’. This kind of ‘greenwashing’ was an insult to those who had pushed tirelessly to see positive change. Why are we, as a society, so eager to defend an industry who has known about the impacts of their activities since the late 1960s? Why do we insist on giving fossil fuel companies another chance, more time? This is challenge we are facing worldover. It must be realised that the time for ‘positive engagement’ has been and gone.

From the point where the report was released onward, something changed. The previously quite small (but very committed) People and Planet group who had been leading the campaign grew, almost exponentially, and the protest against Edinburgh University’s investment policy escalated. We wanted change. We were not prepared to accept ‘not now’ as a response. Charles Stewart House, the Finance HQ of the University of Edinburgh became the location for a sit in-come-10 day long occupation. Loaded with sleeping bags, food supplies and banner making materials, about 40 students set up for the long haul.

What ensued was quite amazing, it was the first time I had been involved in a campaign of this size, and it was addictive. Within the occupation, a kind of creative hub emerged, we had working groups writing press releases, doing media interviews, organising protests to occur on the outside. We had conversations about the kind of future we wanted, about the downfalls capitalism, our frustrations with the recently re-elected Conservative government, and about how we can skill share to create positive change. We were shown support from George Monbiot and Naomi Klein. We had visits from Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr.Graciela Chichilnisky and Lang Banks (Director, WWF Scotland), amongst others.

Meanwhile, the university had stepped up their effort to end the protest, 15 private security manned the doors, and access was completely blocked. Student numbers started to fall and many had to choose to stay inside or leave the increasingly claustrophobic space. For the 10 days of the occupation, there was a rally outside every single day attended by between tens and a hundred supporters, we had drumming, dancing, sign making. And it wasn’t just students; staff were passing food and little notes passed through security, all trying to keep up the spirits of those ‘on the inside’.

Eventually it was decided to call off the occupation. Several days later, the university ‘clarified’ its position, committing to divest from 3 of the biggest coal and tar sands companies if they did not respond to engagement within a 4 week timeframe. Several months on and an update released by Edinburgh has now confirmed that the uni is set to divest from those three companies, shifting some of its £237 million (563m NZD) endowment fund away from fossil fuels. I strongly believe that this move would never have happened if it had not been for such a show of resistance by students and staff. And it is for this reason that I commend the efforts of people world over who are campaigning for change. A system built on fossil fuel economies makes unravelling the ties difficult, but we know it is possible.

11752504_677006772434209_4347565851498338249_n You can travel 15,000 km and meet people who share the same struggle, the same situations. The future is green, but until then I’ll be standing alongside my Kiwi friends, petitioning on cold days, having the conversations we need to have, making the case for divestment. It is only a matter of time before Otago Uni publicly divests, and joins the movement which is pushing for a global transition, and that is oh-so-exciting.


Aoife Hutton is a 21 year old student born in Derry, Ireland. She moved to Edinburgh to complete an undergrad in Ecological and Environmental Science two years ago, and is currently on a study abroad year at University of Otago. Aiofe is particularly interested in the human impacts on our local and global ecosystems, and ways we can create action for change. She loves travelling, weekend tramps through this beautiful country and getting involved in the local activist community in Ōtepoti, Dunedin.