THE principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh is under pressure to withdraw almost £45 million worth of the institution’s investments from fossil fuel companies and the arms industry.

Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea is being urged to consider the move after more than 50 university staff wrote to him calling him to divest from the sectors.

The open letter was signed by 53 academics from a range of departments including the arts, sciences and languages, and follows a decision by Glasgow University last autumn to pull out of fossil fuel investments.

“We are proud of being part of a university which aspires to make world-leading contributions to understanding and addressing global challenges,” the Edinburgh academics’ letter said.

“We are calling on the university to take action to fulfil these objectives: to divest from fossil fuels and the arms trade. While we use our endowment fund to support the fossil fuel industry, we bear responsibility for the environmental damage and social injustice that result from it. Similarly, by investing in arms companies we are fuelling conflict, poverty and human rights abuses.”

According to a response to a freedom of information request sent by the environmental campaigners at Edinburgh University, the institution invested £38 million in fossil fuels and £6 million in the arms industry during 2012.

In October last year Glasgow University became the first academic institution in Europe to commit to stop investing its money in the fossil fuel industry, withdrawing around £18 million in investments to the sector over the following decade. It said it had decided to take action because of the devastating impact climate change had on the planet and that the decision was subject to reassurance that the financial impact for the university is acceptable.

There is a growing worldwide campaign for public bodies to put their money into environmentally friendly and socially just enterprises.

A total of 13 universities in the United States, including Stanford, have already committed to take their funds out of fossil fuels. And last year, the heirs to the Rockefeller family fortune – which was built on oil – announced they were going to sell off their fossil fuel stocks and invest in renewable energy instead.

The Edinburgh academics’s letter comes just weeks before the University Court makes crucial decisions about the university’s investments at its next meeting. There is anticipation that they may recommend divestment from coal, but to retain oil and gas investments. Divestment from arms may be considered at a meeting later this year.

Money for the endowment fund is raised through alumni donations and the cash is used for scholarships, professorships and capital works. The University of Edinburgh’s endowment fund is the third largest in the UK, valued at some £230 million.

Around 1,400 of the students at Edinburgh petitioned the university to follow Glasgow University’s lead last year and the academics’ open letter has also been supported by the university’s Student Association.

“The fossil fuel industry poses a formidable barrier through funding climate-change denial and lobbying politicians, thus distorting public debate and preventing action on climate change,” continued the letter.

“It is time that we stop thinking in terms of the risk of divestment and lead the way in creating a sustainable and secure future. By positively investing in renewable energy, local innovations and the university’s own initiatives we will be fulfilling the university’s mission and attempting to meet its targets to reduce carbon emissions.”

Jonathan Hearn, professor of political and historical sociology at the school of social and political sciences, Lynn Jamieson, professor of the sociology of families and relationship at the school of social and political sciences and Professor Liz Stanley, from the school of social and political sciences. were among the senior academics who signed the letter.

Ric Lander, Friends of the Earth Scotland's finance campaigner: “It is great to see leading Scottish academics standing up for the millions affected by climate change around the world, even when that means calling on their institutions to be bold.

“Our academics are right to urge universities to stop investing in dirty fossil fuels: centres of learning exist to tackle global challenges, not profit from global destruction. The environmental rationale for divestment is crystal clear and the economic case for taking your money out of fossil fuels is growing by the day.”

John Finnie, the Independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands, who is a member of the Green Party, added: “The broad and growing range of support there is for investing in ethical industries is to be welcomed.

"A very clear message is being sent to polluting industries and the arms trade that they are not going to enjoy financial support with people’s money.”

Last year the Move Your Money initiative marked a new direction for the wider divestment campaign when it attempted to persuade Britain’s Big Five banks into ending their £66 billion involvement with “dirty” energy.

HSBC, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds and Santander customers concerned about global warming were urged to write to the banks threatening to withdraw their money unless they committed to a five-to-10-year plan to pull out of investments that contribute to climate change.

HSBC is the biggest backer of the fossil-fuel industry, investing £17 billion in loans, bonds and shares in 2012, according to estimates from the Green European Foundation, based on the bank’s annual reports and data from the research group Thomson One. Barclays invested £15.6 billion over the same period, following by Lloyds at £ 15.5 billion and Royal Bank of Scotland, at £14.4 billion.

A spokesperson for the University of Edinburgh said: “In 2013, the University of Edinburgh was the first university in Europe and the second globally to sign the United Nations Principles of Responsible Investment (UNPRI). Since then, the University has implemented an extensive consultation process to evaluate and strengthen our commitment to responsible investment. We are currently updating our socially responsible investment policy to take account of views expressed.

"The University of Edinburgh recognises its responsibility as a global citizen and is committed to environmentally and socially minded investment.

"The university has created a short life working group which is examining the case for disinvestment from fossil fuels.”