Online forum event for university staff and students

On Friday 24 March 2023 we held the Divest USS: Help stop your pension fuelling climate change online forum for university staff and students as part of UK Divest’s national Day of Action. You can watch the recording here.

The event was chaired by Ellie Harrison (University of Dundee) and featured presentations about the Divest USS Report by Bill Spence (Queen Mary University), about the Save Pensions & Planet court case against USS Directors by Neil Davies (University College London) and about how students can get involved in the campaign by Nat Gorodnitski at Students Organising for Sustainability.

Download the Slides

Summary of Actions

1. Support the Save Pensions & Planet court case against USS Directors – donate yourself, or submit a motion to your UCU branch to donate.

2. Read the Divest USS Report, share it with colleagues and ask your university management to write to USS.

3. Students – pass a motion at your university’s Finance Committee.

4. USS Members – switch to the ‘USS Ethical Equity Fund’.

Keep in touch with Divest USS, by following us on social media: Facebook, Twitter & LinkedIn, subscribe to our blog or email us at if you’d like to get more actively involved.

Calling university students to get involved in the campaign

We’re working with Students Organising for Sustainability (SOS-UK) to encourage students to get involved in the Divest USS campaign.

If you’re a student at a UK University, there’s a simple action that you can take.

Please download our template motion and ask your Students’ Union/Association Representatives to submit it to your University’s finance committee.

The motion calls on the committee to:

  1. Discuss Divest USS’s report and its contents;
  2. Agree to the development of a response to the report with the aim of raising our concerns with USS and publicising to the university community our stance and the report itself, to be worked on collaboratively by the Finance Team, the Students’ Union, and any other interested members of the committee;
  3. Create a plan of action on further steps to ensure the issue continues to be addressed once our response is produced.

Download Template Motion

Please contact us and let us know how you get on!

The Economic Case against investing in fossil fuels

USS keep arguing that it is their fiduciary duty to focus on generating as much income from their investments as possible despite the evidence that many members want them to stop investing in fossil fuels and other high carbon investments and also stop funding new oil and gas fields through corporate bonds. The article here makes clear that there is a strong economic argument for ceasing investment in fossil fuels. So, even if USS chooses to ignore its members, it should divest on financial grounds alone.

Please support the legal action against the USS Trustees if you can Legal action may be the only way that we can get USS to take the radical action needed to respond to the Climate Emergency

Paul Kinnersley, Co-ordinator DivestUSS

Meeting between USS representatives and DivestUSS December 8th 2022

USS                  David Russell, Head of Responsible Investment

Innes McKeand, Head of Strategic Equities

                        Alexandra Bradshaw, Investment Communications Manager

                        Rebecca Mason, Senior Legal Counsel

DivestUSS         Paul Kinnersley, Cardiff University

                         Brian Hoskins, Imperial

                         Bill Spence, QMUL

                         Kat Thorne, KCL

Mark Maslin, UCL

The path to Net Zero

USS outlined their recent activity regarding reducing the carbon footprint of the USS investment portfolio.

USS is clear about its ‘Net Zero 2050 or earlier’ ambition and is working hard to achieve this. Much of the detail of recent progress is described in its TCFD report 2022. However 1) the data are incredibly sensitive so relatively small changes can lead to a much larger overall effect; 2) the data are very patchy; 3) the carbon intensity of some assets is very large; 4) the decline in carbon intensity will not be a smooth path; 5) Scope 1 and 2 data is much more available and reliable than Scope 3 but USS hope to include the latter in their TCFD report 2023.

The challenge of achieving ‘net zero’ is shared across different asset classes (fixed income, private markets, equities etc) and portfolio managers have responsibility for addressing the need for carbon reduction in their particular areas with them being held to account for their results.

An example of where it is difficult to get data is the Scope 3 data for banks.

USS is working with other organisations and pension funds, such as Cambridge University – to collaborate and share learning. A recent initiative was the decision to implement the ‘Climate tilt’ on £5 billion of the USS portfolio.

USS also pointed out that societal change was needed to achieve net zero and that this wasn’t something they could achieve on their own. However, USS did highlight the work they’re doing with policymakers to help drive change in this area – information on which can be found in their TCFD report 2022.

DivestUSS raised concerns that USS was not taking fast enough action to decarbonise.  It was pointed out that USS and others had been trying to engage with Shell for many years but Shell was continuing to explore and exploit new oil and gas fields. DivestUSS stated that this was evidence that ‘engagement’ wasn’t working; however USS suggested that Shell was changing its activities. DivestUSS also warned USS of the disastrous consequences of not rapidly reducing carbon emissions. DivestUSS pointed out that: 1) some other pension schemes particularly in Europe were divesting rapidly from fossil fuels which could leave USS holding stranded assets; 2) in DivestUSS’s opinion USS was ‘behind the curve’ in its efforts to reduce carbon emissions; 3) that there were opportunities to work with other pension funds and 4) that the size of USS meant that they could have considerable influence and should be supporting those industries that are completely based on the energy transition much more, such as renewables.

USS highlighted that they are involved in a wide range of collaborative initiatives with other pension funds, asset owners and asset managers (having for example established the IIGCC, been a founder signatory to the UNPRI and on the Board of the Transition Pathway Initiate) to help drive change, and they understand the power of collective engagement. USS also highlighted that it already had considerable investment (£1.9bn) in renewable energy and has appetite for more. However, there was a limited opportunity to invest in renewable energy and considerable competition among investors for this type of asset.  

Ethics and investment decisions

DivestUSS expressed the view that the Climate Emergency poses both financial risks and ethical risks to USS and asked for clarification of the degree to which ethical considerations play a part in investment decisions.  Citing the examples of the divestment from tobacco, unconventional weapons and thermal coal and the recent large reduction of the holding in Glencore, DivestUSS asked if these decisions were made on an ethical basis.  DivestUSS also asked if members’ views were to be considered in making investment decisions – while USS agreed that member views are important and are taken into account via regular surveys, USS stated that it must be remembered that the primary drivers for investment decisions must be financial. DivestUSS noted that the respondents to the Maastricht Survey of USS members (excluding retired members) had shown strong support for fossil fuel divestment. USS pointed out that a summary of how USS provides ethical investment options for members with savings in the Investment Builder and the Maastricht survey results can be found on the USS website

The legal representative stated that the response rate to the Maastrict survey had been too low to be taken as a clear statement of members’ wishes and furthermore that ethical considerations alone could not be taken into account when USS was making financial decisions – USS highlighted that they have a primary fiduciary duty to invest in the best financial interests of members and beneficiaries. USS noted that changes in trust law would be needed before USS could take a different approach.

USS went on to say that for USS to stop investing in fossil fuels the case would have to be made that these investments were not likely to produce beneficial financial returns over the long-term and that alternative investments would be more profitable.

In response to a specific question about Lukoil USS responded that they were not making any income from their holding. They stated that while USS has a residual position in Lukoil, holdings in the company were reduced from November 2021 before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but market liquidity and eventual closure have prevented a full exit, and they are not receiving dividends. Similarly when DivestUSS raised concerns about the performance of Thames Water USS reported that they had not been taking any dividends from Thames Water since USS first invested in 2017 and instead the company was reinvesting to drive long-term improvements. 

Investment strategy

USS reported that they considered that engagement with companies was working; that opportunities for ‘green’ investments were extremely limited and that they were often in competition with oil and gas companies, who have much deeper pockets than USS, that were trying to diversify their own portfolios. USS’s investments in fossil fuel companies were only a small part of their total portfolio. USS is continuing to lend money to oil and gas companies through the Corporate Bond markets and it is not possible to restrict these investments to, for example, a ‘renewable’ branch of BP.  USS did however highlight the work they’re doing with banks on corporate lending, referencing an IIGCC sector piece on banks and climate change coming out in January and some work with Cambridge University. USS also noted a recent discussion with JP Morgan on its funding of fossil fuels.

DivestUSS responded that if fossil fuels companies were only a small part of the USS portfolio divestment from fossil fuels would probably have little financial impact on USS funds but would be an extremely positive statement to its members and other pension funds. In addition, DivestUSS recognised that some mining companies were involved in producing the raw materials for renewable energy systems and that some oil products were needed.  However, DivestUSS could see no place for coal and gas nor for investing in the associated distribution networks.

Communication with members

From the discussions, it was apparent that DivestUSS did not know that USS was not earning income from Lukoil and Thames Water. USS asked that DivestUSS take care not to post inaccurate or misleading information on social media. It was also pointed out that although USS lists its ‘top 100’ public equity holdings information was not provided on the smaller public equity holdings.  Although members could not expect to be provided with information about every investment decision, given the membership, DivestUSS believe USS should provide as much information as practical to their members. DivestUSS asked whether USS could follow the example of Australian pension funds, which are required to publish details of all their investments. In response, USS stated that they would consider how they might provide improve holdings disclosure.

How DivestUSS could help USS

Given its membership, DivestUSS felt strongly that USS should be both using the knowledge and skills of its membership to develop innovative approaches to address the climate emergency and the need for USS to make financial returns long into the future.

DivestUSS suggested that USS members may be able to suggest innovative opportunities for investment.  For example, USS could work with the UK power supply companies to form a company to install air source heat pumps across the UK.  DivestUSS also proposed investing in hydrogen. USS responded that government plans in this area were still at a very early stage and the sector was a long way away from being commercially viable. 

Surveying members – DivestUSS could help by reviewing questions and publicising surveys by USS to seek members’ views.

Working with Universities – DivestUSS considered that USS could do more to work with universities which are themselves facing the same challenges of the need to decarbonise. 

Next steps  

It was agreed that the most appropriate time for another meeting would be after the USS TCFD report is produced (around July-August 2023), and annually thereafter.

DivestUSS agreed to produce a summary of the meeting which would be circulated with USS before any further distribution.

Standard letter for VCs, Finance Officers to send to USS

USS should be listening to Universities as to how they determine their investment strategy. Vice Chancellors, Principals and Finance Officers all need to be assured that their staff can be confident of pension returns long into the future. However the Climate Emergency and USS’s policy of continuing to invest in companies that are exploring and exploiting new fossil fuel resources threatens this. European pension funds – for example the Dutch ABP have committed to divesting from fossil fuels – and we believe USS urgently need to take the same step. Below is a standard letter that could be sent to USS by senior university staff.

Dear Chair of Trustees

As Vice Chancellor of xxxxxx University I write to express my concerns about USS’s continued investment in fossil fuel companies, and the funding of new coal, oil, and gas production through corporate bonds and banks which market corporate bonds.  The International Panel on Climate Change is clear that, for the serious risks of climate change to be addressed, there must be no new development of coal, oil and gas reserves whatsoever.  Unless we respond rapidly to these risks, we will face global social, environmental and economic chaos.

USS is taking some steps to address climate change, outlined in its Task Force on Climate Related Disclosures Report 2022, which has set the target of ‘Net Zero 2050’. This is too little, too late. 

There is debate as to whether divestment or active ‘engagement’ with fossil fuel companies is the more effective strategy to achieve rapid decarbonisation. Given the manifest failure of the latter course, our university has committed to divestment. Divestment is also supported by the same action being taken by several large European pension funds (for example ABP

USS should take the same action, or provide the members and the employers with very clear evidence as to why it will not. By continuing to invest members’ funds in companies such as Shell, whose plans for net zero 2050 are considered by many to be close to greenwashing, USS is risking both reputational and financial damage.

USS’s Public equity investments (June 2022)

USS regularly publish a list of their top 100 public equity investments and along with this, provide a search engine so that one can search to see if they have a holding in individual companies (but if not in top 100 they don’t tell you how much they hold in that company).  See

The June 2022 list shows our money is in: 

1. Fossil fuel companies – 50 of the 225 largest fossil fuel companies (up from 45 last year)

7 of the 10 biggest US shale companies 

3 of the 4 world’s biggest fracking companies

2. Alleged Climate Wreckers 

USS holds shares in 41 of the 180 companies reported to have the biggest fossil fuel expansion plans.

3. The banks financing all this 

USS holds shares in 33 of the 60 top organisations reported to be financing the fossil fuel industry and its expansion. With £442m invested in 7 of these banks in their top 100 investments.

To summarise

USS holds shares in over 100 of the companies alleged to be making the most contributions to the climate emergency. They have been saying for years that they prefer to “engage” with companies to encourage change. Really? With more than 100 of them? Where is the track record for all this engagement?

Their top 100 investments have changed a bit – they still have 3 fossil fuel companies, 3 alleged “climate wreckers” and 7 banks funding fossil fuels, but there is a continued shift towards Apple, Amazon, Google/Alphabet etc as well to big Chinese companies.

References for tweets 07/11/2022 about Thames Water

website 27/5/21

Thames Water has been fined £4 million after untreated sewage escaped from sewers below London into a park and a river. In New Malden

The court was told approximately 79 million litres of sludge escaped across an area of about 6,500 square metres. It took 30 people a day for almost a month to clean-up sludge that was ankle-deep in places.

As untreated sewage built up below ground, almost 50 warning alarms were set off over the next 5 hours. Every one was left unchecked.

It took Thames Water 15 hours to report the incident to the Environment Agency, a legal requirement, and another 12 hours – by now, the morning of 9 February – before the company had any sizeable presence at the scene.

This latest conviction brings the total amount of fines given to Thames Water since 2017 to £28.4 million for 10 cases of water pollution.

[case brought by environment agency]



Thames Water has now accrued £32.4m in fines since 2017 for 11 cases of water pollution

Thames Water Utilities Limited has been fined £4 million for discharging an estimated half a million litres of raw sewage into the Seacourt and Hinksey streams in Oxford on 24 and 25 July 2016

the water company had failed to adequately maintain this high risk section of sewer for at least 16 years.

The court was told how the water company failed to disclose highly relevant documents, including a maintenance manual, until the 11th hour and only after members of the public had brought one of them to the attention of the Environment Agency.



Thames Water dumped raw sewage into rivers 5,028 times in 2021

Thames Water dumped untreated effluent for more than 68,000 hours into the river systems around Oxford last year, campaigners have revealed, arguing that the sum of money the company plans to spend to improve the situation is woefully inadequate.

References for our tweets on Glencore 01/11/22

USS holding £ 92 million in Glencore

Glencore being fined over one billion dollars for ‘Foreign bribery and market manipulation’

Glencore being fined over 28 million dollars by UK Serious Fraud Office

ABP exits Glencore

Your money is supporting illegal settlements in Palestine

If you have ever contributed to USS, some of your money is supporting illegal settlements in Palestine. On the USS website list of investments can be found several of the 112 companies identified by the United Nations in 2020 as doing business in illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian land.

            Many of the 112 companies are relatively small Israeli companies. Of the well-known international companies identified by the UN, the USS list includes Airbn, Alstom, Booking Holdings, Caterpillar, Expedia,  Heidelberg Cement, and Motorola. It also supports General Mills, which has recently, under pressure from activists, closed its factory in an illegal settlement (Mondoweiss 15.6.2022).  Of these, Caterpillar and Heidelberg Cement have been identified as being of particular concern. Caterpillar is a U.S. multinational manufacturer of heavy engineering machinery, whose equipment is used in home demolitions, the construction of the West Bank and Gaza walls, and the construction of illegal settlements. Heidelberg Cement, the world’s largest cement producer, operates quarries and manufacturing facilities in the occupied West Bank: their products have been used to build and expand illegal settlements.

            What follows is for those who have doubts about urging divestment from these companies.

            The case for divestment consists of a combination of three factors that make the case of Israel unusual if not unique.

            The first factor, and the one least appreciated, is that we are being asked to support BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) by the Palestinians themselves. The call to BDS was initiated in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian organisations.[1] When someone being robbed and beaten up asks you to do something peaceful and legal to help them, my view is that you should do it. This is ignored by those who oppose BDS against Israel on the grounds that there are other states just as bad (an odd argument, even without the special circumstance that I have just described). Of course, if the combination of all three factors obtains anywhere else in the world, I have a moral duty to support BDS there too.

            The second factor is the obvious one that placing settlements in land that does not belong to you is illegal under the Geneva conventions (signed by Israel), and generally requires considerable brutality (as in Palestine). Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that “…The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population in the territory it occupies.”

            The third factor is that Israel knows that there is as yet no genuine pressure on it (external or internal) to halt the increase and expansion of settlements (to say nothing of house demolitions, detention without trial, etc.). The position of the British government (as of almost all governments) is that the settlements are illegal. But it is prepared to do nothing whatsoever to pressure Israel to cease its illegal activity (and of course Israel has never cared anything about the criticisms that governments occasionally issue), and a  government headed by Starmer would be no different. Given the genuine action taken by the British government against other countries (examples are not difficult to think of), this represents blatant double standards. The policy of Israel is to progressively see what it can get away with: the answer (so far) is everything. This gives Israel the green light to continue to encroach on land that does not belong to it, and to intensify and extend what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have painstakingly documented as Apartheid.

            The only hope for the Palestinians is the eventual growth of BDS to the level at which, as in the case of South African Apartheid, it can have a real effect (including on governments). The issue is not whether you are pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. The issue is whether or not you are prepared to do something, however small, to halt the slow-motion ethnic cleansing of a defenceless people by a military superpower.

Richard Seaford

Emeritus Professor, University of Exeter

Ex-chair, Exeter UCU.

[1] The support of Palestinians for BDS as a whole is difficult to ascertain. Research conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey (Survey 56, June 2015) reported that ‘86% support the campaign to boycott Israel and impose sanctions on it’. Since then the situation of the Palestinians has steadily deteriorated. 

The way forward for USS

We have met recently with USS and were informed of their plan for interim targets for their pathway to ‘net zero by 2050’. Worryingly these interim targets – 25% reduction by 2025 and 50% by 2030 – are based on carbon intensity rather than absolute emissions. Using carbon intensity means that if the fund grows, as it has done over the last decade, intensity could go down while actual emissions stay the same. However the science from IPCC is clear that emissions themselves need to be rapidly reduced (by at least 7% per year). Furthermore we believe that the emissions need to be reduced more rapidly and that the target must be ‘absolute zero’ and not ‘net zero’ since most offset schemes are questionable.

In response to this, we have produced a draft pathway for USS to follow to take the necessary urgent steps towards decarbonisation of its investment portfolio. We welcome comments (

USSDivest’s plan for decarbonising USS’s investment portfolio in response to the Climate Emergency – Feb 2022

  1. To immediately divest public/private equity and debt/bonds from those companies that explore and exploit new fossil fuel reserves and those that develop and build new infrastructure (for example pipelines and refineries) for the transport and processing of fossil fuels.
  2. To adopt an inelastic and full cycle measure of annual carbon equivalent emissions derived from the activities the scheme owns and creates. Average carbon per member appears a sensible choice.
  3. To clearly define the protocol used to measure that metric. This must include full and transparent accounting of all growth effects including those initiated through debt and endogenous asset value growth. Likewise it must include robust handling of mixed asset portfolios.
  4. To state what the 2019 value of that metric is as the baseline
  5. To reduce that metric by 25% by 2025, 60 % by 2030, and 100 % by 2040 relative to baseline
  6. To state that any overshoot in a given year is fully redeemed in subsequent years prior to 2040 such that the total carbon budget set by the 2019 to 2040 objective detailed above is met
  7. To formally agree to exclude carbon offsets and removals from this process setting the above targets as ‘absolute’ rather than ‘net’.
  8. To report annually and transparently to all members on progress against target.