/ 18 August 2021

Academics, students urge Wits University to divest from fossil fuels

University of the Witwatersrand

Climate change is one of the most pressing problems facing the University of the Witwatersrand and unless decisive action is taken to curtail carbon emissions, global temperatures will climb by several more degrees over the lifetime of its current students.

This is contained in a position statement prepared by academic staff and students who are urging the university to adopt the principle of fossil fuel divestment and commit to a time-bound path towards fully doing so by 2033. 

Globally, almost 200 universities have divested from fossil fuels, including Oxford, Cambridge and Yale. 

The statement and the names of those who have endorsed it, was submitted to the university’s leaders on Wednesday for consideration by a Wits committee which is developing a new strategic plan for 2023-33. 

So far, 180 people have signed the statement, among them 50 professors, and it has been endorsed by several members of the Wits council including its chairperson, Isaac Shongwe, and Professor Glenda Gray.

The academics involved in the statement include Vishwas Satgar , associate professor in international relations, Professor Francois Venter, the divisional head of Ezintsha and Matthew Chersich, research professor at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute.

Mean global temperature is already 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels, according to the statement. “Modelling studies by Wits researchers show that temperatures in South Africa are likely to rise at twice the global rate, accompanied by more frequent and intense droughts and wildfires, as well as major storms.”

The African continent is the hardest hit by climate change yet has the fewest resources to respond. “Already many of the temperatures being recorded on the continent are close to the limits of ‘liveability’, and physical labour or ‘workability’ is not possible for parts of the year.”

Without interventions, the impact of climate change on crop failure, food insecurity, mass migration, conflict and poverty will continue to escalate. “As temperatures, so do rates of mortality, mental health conditions, including violence and suicide, and adverse birth outcomes,” while the destruction of biodiversity is affecting all parts of the natural world.

South Africa is the 12th highest emitter of carbon dioxide worldwide, primarily from coal burning, and several cities in Mpumalanga are among the most polluted worldwide. “Our shameful position in these global rankings, and our inability thus far to shift our carbon trajectory is inextricably linked to our individual, institutional and political vested interests in securing profits from the fossil fuel industry.” 

Divestment would be a “natural extension” of Wits’s historical activism, ethics, and stewardship of critical social issues, the statement said, noting how divestment from local companies was central to the struggle against apartheid.

“Profiting from an economy built on racial exploitation was deemed unethical. It is equally unethical for Wits university to willingly profit from an industry that damages the planet, actively distorts science, and subverts efforts to control its harms,” it added.

The fossil fuel industry causes major environmental damage, while “corrupt relations” between the government, coal companies and other fossil fuel interests have obstructed any meaningful shifts to renewable energy, the statement says.

Wits and its staff members, through their pension funds, also draw profits from the fossil fuel industry, whose hidden harms are borne by people living near power stations and future generations, it states. The university has strong past and present links to the coal and mining industries.

“What disturbs me the most is that Wits compels its staff to hold their pensions in companies that are irreversibly damaging the planet, deeply corrupt and spreading climate denialism,” Chersich told the Mail & Guardian. “This, for me, is unconscionable … Until the university divests, any claim to be addressing the climate crisis will ring hollow.”

The divestment of financial assets and pension funds is not tied to the receipt of research funding from industry or industry engagement.

David Everatt, a professor at the Wits school of governance who helped draft the statement, said: “What we’ve tried to do is to say that we have to put a marker in the ground — a statement of principle — not to rip the guts out of Wits finances, but to say after a set period of time — and 10 years seems more than generous — any donor of any type or investment the university has who continues to pollute without making significant efforts towards carbon zero … we would then ethically say you cannot continue making money off the back of people or companies that are destroying the planet.”.

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) clearly articulates that time has run out, he said. “For us not to be drawing the line in the sand is unthinkable.” 

He said there had been pushback “from people who don’t agree with us” but added: “We think they’re completely and self-evidently wrong, the planet is dying and they want to keep extracting from the soil … On the quiet, we’ve seen more and more very senior people in the university sign on without talking to us, which is the right way to do it.” 

Strong leadership by influential institutions is key to preventing the climate crisis from becoming a full climate catastrophe, the statement says. “Wits is one of few institutions viewed as holding legitimacy in the country and bears a grave responsibility to wield its influence wisely. The responsibility extends … to protecting the climate and ecosystems against further irreversible destruction.” 

Its students deserve to graduate into a future not defined by the climate crisis, it states. SRC compliance officer Mpho Chauke agreed, saying: “Wits should definitely aim towards being a more sustainable university.”

Achille Mbembe, a professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, said any blueprint for the university that does not consider ongoing changes in the biophysical spheres of the earth system has no strategic value whatsoever. “These changes encompass far more than climate change or mere environmental degradation. They refer to a broader ecological crisis of planetary dimensions.”

This crisis represents the greatest challenge to Africa’s development in the 21st century, Mbembe said. “It literally compels us to invent new ways to live with the Earth. In a society like ours, the university’s role as well as the function of research and knowledge itself must be entirely redefined in relation to this new imperative.”

Beyond disinvestment, the statement lists several priorities for the next decade, including staff members being offered options for retirement funds that exclude fossil fuel investments, rapid decarbonisation on campus by 2033, committing the university to climate justice and intensifying teaching activities on climate change. 

Wits communications head Shirona Patel said the university encouraged a multiplicity of views grounded on data, expertise and science.

“Some of the best climate change experts in the world are based at Wits and climate change is high on the university’s agenda,” she said, adding that all inputs — 100 have so far been received — would be considered because the new strategic plan was finalised for implementation from 2023.

“It’s very encouraging to see that many Wits academics are standing up at last on the issue of climate and divestment from fossil fuels. But it’s also surprising that some academics whom one might expect to be trenchant on these issues are not yet so forthright,” David le Page of Fossil Free South Africa said. 

The University of Cape Town has, after eight years of being lobbied to divest from fossil fuels and three votes of convocation in favour of divestment, created a responsible investment panel that will present recommendations to its council next month.

Le Page said the clarity of the IPCC report made it  “all the more astonishing” that other universities, particularly those with big endowments such as Stellenbosch and Unisa, “have not yet moved on this issue”. 

Although it supports the ideal of a fossil fuel free economy, Stellenbosch University told the M&G that it was not currently possible to move away from it completely.

“The university’s coherent plan to reduce its carbon footprint gives expression to that objective though. The university believes it can do much more in the positive direction by changing our behaviour and structure, rather than the negatives — taking companies out of the investment portfolio,” it said.