OPINION: Cambridge University is going to rename the BP Institute on its sprawling campus in Eastern England to something that “better reflects its (academic) values”, according to the Sunday Times.
It’s a small but symbolic thing: the way oil companies are being chased out of the educational world by student protestors worried about the climate crisis.
In better times, retired BP executives such as John Browne would chair the prestigious Judge Business School at the university and were prized alumni.
No more. Students at Warwick University led a campaign — unsuccessful so far — to shut the BP archive on their campus while there have been continuing climate protests at colleges around the country.
Current BP chief executive Bernard Looney has committed the company to a 40% cut in oil production and to develop a tenfold increase in its renewable power capacity by 2030, but the investments so far are small and the protests remain.
Despite the growing pressure in academic — and cultural — institutions to cut ties to oil, governments have been treading a much more wary line, especially since energy prices soared due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Ben van Beurden, Shell's chief executive, said last week in a Financial Times article that his discussions with ministers on energy security, energy balances and investment levels were better than ever. Countries such as the UK now look set to expand North Sea oil production at least short term, despite having tough carbon targets in place.
Shell, which has also committed itself to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, told the Financial Times it was concentrating on helping customers decarbonise rather than making big, low-carbon acquisitions.
Van Beurden also argued that concentrating on energy supply rather than demand was wrong: “Supply needs to adjust but it needs to adjust to lower demand,” he told the FT.
And he is right. Governments and other policymakers have talked about the need to move from carbon to non-carbon fuels and energy but largely avoided taking robust decisions to cut demand.
The International Energy Agency in March outlined 10 steps that could help, including the lowering of speed limits on roads, investing in better public transport, and encouraging people to work from home half of the week. This was in response to Russia but could be a blueprint for decarbonisation.
Germany, which is severely at risk from a potential Kremlin shutdown of Russian gas exports, has begun rationing hot water, dimming street lights and shutting down swimming pools.
But largely it is business as usual — or worse. More carbon-heavy coal is currently being burned in place of gas in some German power stations.
In the US, leading oil major ExxonMobil is concentrating on carbon capture and storage instead of moving into renewables while regional American policymakers argue over whether to halt the expansion of new petrol stations or develop more charging stations for electric vehicles.
Oil companies have work to do on energy transition and are choosing their own different ways of doing this. But it is time policymakers developed a coherent framework for all to work around, starting with strategies for demand reduction.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)