This February, after a two year long Enviro Collective campaign, the University of Sydney has announced that it will be implementing a ‘pathmaking’ new investment policy which functions to reduce the net carbon footprint of its share portfolio. University management and students have spoken loud and clear; we take climate change very seriously, and we must play a leadership role in fighting it.
This proposal has its strengths in acknowledging the diversity of causes of climate change. Rather than screening out particular categories of holdings, for example companies whose primary business is fossil fuels, the University of Sydney plans to reduce the carbon intensity of its share portfolio so that in three years, its carbon footprint is 20% lower than the weighted average of the markets in which they trade. We will likely see a movement away from emissions heavy agricultural and transportation holdings, as well as from fossil fuels. USyd’s approach serves as a much needed reminder that industries such as animal agriculture and parts of the transportation sector are also heavy emitters.
However, I’m calling on the University of Sydney to take one step further. With the support of 80% of student voters, the Sydney Uni Enviro Collective asked the university to divest in full from all companies whose primary business is the extraction, transportation, and processing of coal, oil and gas. We believe that the solution USyd has brought forward is innovative, but we’re calling on them to #DivestTheRest. This is why.
Reducing the carbon impact of the university’s share portfolio is akin to putting solar panels on the roof. It’s very important, a great step forward, and everyone should do it. But Sydney University can do more. As an influential academic institution with the vested trust of the Australian public, this university has the potential to send a strong signal that the era of fossil fuels is, and must be, over. It’s important for the university to begin to pull its weight through reducing its own impact, but it can and must act on its role as a thought leader to help Australia move first into the 21st century on climate change, and into the future.
We live in a bizarre time where burning fossil fuels is a form of collective suicide, and yet our Prime Minister consistently proclaims that “Coal is good for humanity”. 80% of fossil fuel reserves currently accounted for must stay in the ground if we, humanity, are to make it. The global average temperatures cannot rise more than 2ºC if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. With current policies in place, including the lauded emissions reduction US-China deal, we’re looking at at least twice that, 4ºC of warming before the end of the century. We have to stop this.
Our hopes are pegged on the United Nations negotiations in December, and on state and federal governments spearheading a just transition away from fossil fuels towards a renewable economy. But state and federal governments are scrambling to build coal mines we simply can’t afford, with the NSW state government teaming up with Rio Tinto to overturn a Supreme Court decision so that they can move the town of Bulga to build an open cut coal mine in its place.
This week we saw the government that scrapped the Climate Council put 4 million dollars into a think tank run by notorious climate “contrarian” Bjorn Lomborg. China, the US, and Brazil are questioning Australia in the run up to the United Nations COP21 negotiations- where are our climate policies? The Abbott government hasn’t deigned to respond, and hasn’t bothered to send a minister to the pre-negotiations in Washington.
As the National Geographic reported last month, “Earth’s dashboard is flashing red”, and our policymakers are not listening. The nation’s collective conscience considers climate change to be a top 5 issue, but the undue social and political influence of fossil fuel lobbies hinders the implementation of urgently needed policies.
The greatest power our university holds isn’t its financial weight, although a $1 billion endowment is nothing to scoff at. Nor is it the outcome of the carbon emissions reduction process the university will be undertaking. The greatest power our university holds is thought leadership.
I want to see Australian universities divest from all companies whose primary business is the extraction, transportation, or processing of coal, oil, or gas. I think USyd’s new policy should be taken up sector wide, along with other measures to reduce universities’ individual carbon footprints. I want our university to undertake research geared towards a just transition to a renewable economy, to create solutions for sustainable jobs and communities for rural Australia.
The University of Sydney can be the canary in the coal mine that we have needed for a long time. We need the frontier institutions of Australia, and the world, to bridge the gap between the politically viable and the scientifically necessary. It’s time to divest now, not in 2020, not when the water is lapping at our waists.
To get involved with the campaign to see the University of Sydney #DivestTheRest contact Jay Gillieatt (firstname.lastname@example.org). For more information on the Sydney Uni Enviro Collective, email the 2015 conveners, Amy Russell (email@example.com) or Rob Pattinson (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Register to participate in the Sydney University Enviro Collective’s Fossil Free Universities National Day of Action on Wednesday and Thursday here.