Fossil fuel money necessary for climate solutions – new Oxford University leader

There has to be “recognition and engagement” of the fossil fuel industry’s role in the global transition to green energy, the new vice-chancellor of Oxford University has said.

Professor Irene Tracey wants the university to be a leader in what she called the “most pressing issue of our times”.

At her inaugural ceremony on Tuesday at the Sheldonian Theatre, she announced her intention for Oxford University to be a centre of interdisciplinary research on finding climate solutions.

But, speaking to the PA news agency, she stressed the need to include the scientific expertise and financial backing of oil companies.

She also said she would commission an independent analysis of pay and conditions for the university’s staff, after several days of strikes in November and continued non-strike action such as working to contract and refusing to volunteer.

Speaking ahead of her speech, she said conversations with the students are ongoing about the need to engage with legacy energy companies.

In response to a student report published last year which found that the university received more than £1.6 million in funding and donations from fossil fuel companies in one financial year, she said: “We have a devolved structure here, so each college can decide on its own disinvestment.

“I’m more interested in how we need to have the conversations with some of these industries.

“It’s less about the money and donations, it’s about, actually, how they need to help us find the solutions and put their resources into helping to find the solutions because they’ve got the resources.

“It’s about recognising that we have to start to think about pragmatic solutions to how we’re going to address this issue and in many ways, maybe we are freer, as a university sector, to do that than governments.

“The upshot is that it’s going to be very difficult to wean off oil in the short term, we can’t just do that tomorrow, we don’t have enough alternative energies to do that.

“So to a certain extent there has to be still that recognition and engagement of that industry, and they’ve also got a great science and engineering base to come up with some of the solutions, they’ve also got the finances to do it.

Cop26 – Glasgow
Climate Justice activists at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow (PA)

“So I think it’s about educating our students, having the dialogue, getting real about how we’re going to solve this, and recognising that actually, some of the solutions will have to come from the very industry that’s part of the problem.

“And we’re just going to have to embrace that and get our heads around it.”

Oxford University’s guidance on accepting fossil fuel donations and funding says such money should only be taken “only where the purpose explicitly relates to enabling meaningful accelerations away from carbon usage and speeding the transition to net zero carbon”.

Prof Tracey also spoke about Oxford University’s role in tackling the global problem of disinformation and distrust in expertise.

While she believes the scientific achievements and information made available during the pandemic have helped to reverse this trend, there is still more to be done.

She said: “Education and communication is key.

“One of the things we’ve worked really hard on in Oxford is to make sure that our young scientists learn how to communicate to different audiences and do that public engagement piece so you’re demystifying the process.

“You’re also helping people understand that when scientists change their minds or say actually we think this now, it doesn’t mean they’re being dodgy or illicit or they got it wrong, it’s just that’s the process of science you’re building on and improving all the time.

“We can only probably address these issues by getting the right information out and keep getting it out and maybe keep getting it out in different ways.”