“Shocking and distasteful”: students raise greenwashing concerns about University’s partnership with Shell
The University of Exeter has signed a five-year contract with Shell, collaborating on a research project focusing on “carbon sequestration”. Some students have since launched a “Shell Out” campaign, calling for the University to cut ties with the oil company.
Shell has been one of the University’s strategic partners since 2005, their joint research helping to “[accelerate] the development of biofuels as a feasible alternative to traditional fossil fuels”. In a weekly bulletin, the University stated that their current project, focusing on carbon sequestration in Brazil and the UK, “will contribute to the transition to net zero”.
However, students have expressed their discontent over the partnership, highlighting that it does not align with the University’s 2030 strategy. Concerns have been raised about the credibility of Shell’s sustainability and how this partnership might negatively impact the University’s reputation.
An investigation led by The Guardian revealed that Shell’s contribution to carbon offsetting does “not represent genuine carbon reductions”. Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, also argues that carbon offsetting is only useful if companies pair these initiatives with a genuine effort to reduce their carbon footprint.
A lack of communication?
Exeposé spoke to students about their perception of the University’s association with Shell. While some students voiced disinterest in the University’s partnerships as these have “no impact” on their studies, over 50 per cent of polled students expressed interest in the University’s partnerships. One student said that “who the University chooses to associate itself with is telling of their morals”.
Multiple students told Exeposé that they were unaware of the University’s link with Shell, and that other than a “small blog post” they had no way of learning about the University’s strategic partners. Another student mentioned that they had only heard of the partnership through word of mouth.
Concerns have been raised about the credibility of Shell’s sustainability and how this partnership might negatively impact the University’s reputation.
Emma de Saram, VP Liberation & Equality at the Students’ Guild, has been at the forefront of calls to make the University more sustainable. Commenting on the Shell partnership, de Saram said: “It seemed like the University didn’t think that students would find out about this, as the partnership was only announced through internal communications”. She added, “the only way I became aware of the partnership was through another member of staff who happened to send me the information.
“There needs to be a complete re-evaluation of how the University makes partnerships that are risky in terms of climate change. The monthly people’s assembly on the Penryn campus in partnership with Falmouth University is a great example of how these issues can be discussed constructively.”
Sustainability and greenwashing
In 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published a report stating that the development of fossil fuel infrastructure should stop immediately if we are to meet goals of net zero emissions by 2050. Nonetheless, Rystad Energy projects that Shell will invest 46 billion dollars in new oil and gas infrastructure between 2022 and 2030.
One student declared that they “fully support the partnership”, as the University will be able to support Shell in finding greener alternatives to fossil fuels. However, Edred Whittingham, a University of Exeter student and climate activist, told Exeposé that Shell’s investments mean that “we shouldn’t take their net zero strategy seriously. Any plan that is not in line with what the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are calling for is essentially a scam”.
Whittingham, who is an active member of groups such as Just Stop Oil, explained: “I find it particularly outrageous that my university, which is producing a lot of research that I use as an activist, is still partnering with fossil fuel companies”.
When asked about their perception of Shell, one student said that they associated the company with “continual unethical practices”, while another posited that Shell “ignores climate concerns in the name of profit”.
I find it particularly outrageous that my university, which is producing a lot of research that I use as an activist, is still partnering with fossil fuel companies.Edred Whittingham, University of Exeter student
Multiple individuals raised concerns about the oil company’s greenwashing, and how the University’s partnership with Shell might negatively impact its reputation. The University’s 2030 strategy aims to “lead meaningful action against the climate emergency and ecological crisis”. Students have told Exeposé that the University’s partnership with Shell was “shocking and distateful”, and risks making the 2030 strategy seem like “a marketing ploy”. One student elaborated, saying that “the University simply cannot pledge an environmental stance while this partnership exists”.
De Saram, commenting on fears about the University’s greenwashing, argued that “institutionalised activism isn’t challenging any of the systems that perpetuate climate change. As long as the University is still partnering with Shell, initiatives such as Go Green Week seem disingenuous.
“The University declared a climate emergency in 2019 but has since done anything but act like it is an emergency. We’re on track for 2.8 degrees of warming by the end of the century. The University should be at the forefront of how we act.”
“Shell Out” campaign
In response to the partnership, students including Whittingham and de Saram have launched a “Shell Out” campaign. It not only calls for the University to make a statement acknowledging criticism of the partnership, but also demands that they cut all ties with Shell and any other organisations that are investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure.
When asked whether students’ opinions should shape the University’s partnerships, de Saram stated that “students do have a say but just don’t use it enough. There should be more democratic accountability for who the University partners with. If we’re going to play the ‘marketisation of education’ game, students are the consumers so should have a say in how the business runs. Additionally, on paper, the University should be encouraging students to get involved: we are taught how to be critical thinkers.
“There is so much we can do within the University to hold them accountable and to be activists without having to put ourselves or our degrees at risk. We need to show the University that a lot of students are on the same page. There’s a place for everyone in climate activism and we all have our part to play.”
Involvement in the “Shell Out” campaign reaches beyond the student community. According to de Saram, participants are “very intergenerational, some of whom are used to navigating these kinds of campaigns”. She also mentioned that the group holds weekly introductory meetings for those wanting to get involved, aiming to make student activism seem less daunting to the uninitiated.
Touching on the group’s long-term plans, Whittingham explained that they were looking to expand their reach through “a petition and social media promotion”. The campaigners aim to have their demands met by 28 February, Whittingham stated.
“We do aim to influence the future”
Exeposé asked the University for comment on students’ reactions to the partnership and the concerns that the “Shell Out” campaign has raised. A University spokesperson said: “The University of Exeter works with a wide range of governments, businesses and organisations to achieve our strategic objectives on the environment and climate, health and wellbeing and social justice. Agreeing research partnerships does not equate to us supporting every aspect of a partner’s activities or policies either now or in the past, but we do aim to influence the future.
“The University recently signed a contract to work with Shell on a nature-based solutions project for carbon sequestration in Brazil, which will contribute to the global race to net zero. The Carbon Storage in Pasture through Ecological Restoration (CASPER) programme focuses on soil carbon storage and is aimed at substantially advancing understanding of how both plant-microbe soil interactions and agricultural management practices impact the potential for carbon sequestration. The programme will involve significant lab-based and fieldwork experimentation in Brazil working with local partners, communities and land managers in the region.
Agreeing research partnerships does not equate to us supporting every aspect of a partner’s activities or policies either now or in the past, but we do aim to influence the future.University of Exeter spokesperson
“The University has worked with Shell for over 15 years in collaborative research projects on advancing biofuels and renewable chemicals and our partnership was formalised under a Framework Agreement in 2017. This planned research is part of a wider Shell-led research programme focussed on carbon sequestration through the Nature-Based Solutions part of Shell’s Energy Transition Strategy (2021) and target to be a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050.
“High-quality nature-based solutions, independently verified to determine their carbon impact and social and biodiversity benefits, will play an important and inevitably necessary role in mitigating global emissions. The science behind net zero is clear about the need to accelerate the phasing out of fossil fuel supply and demand, transition to renewable energy at scale, and invest in carbon dioxide removal, and this work is at the heart of the University of Exeter’s Strategy 2030.”
A spokesperson for the Students’ Guild said: “A campaign group has been set up by students, with support from Emma de Saram (VP Liberation and Equality), and have launched the “Shell Out” campaign. The Guild proudly champions student-led campaigning and aims to empower students to enact the change they want to see in their communities and wider society.”