USyd drags its feet on divestment

Activist groups are seeking to expose the ties between universities and the fossil fuel industry.

Art: Michael Lotsaris

Fossil Free is a global student movement that calls for divestment, asking universities to cease investing in the fossil fuels industry, including oil, gas and coal extraction companies. The movement aims to utilise the status of universities as prominent public institutions and leaders in public opinion, in order to challenge the social license of the fossil fuel industry in the face of slow action on climate change.

Recently, Kings College in London has become the 26th university in the United Kingdom to fully divest. Closer to home, Queensland University of Technology and La Trobe have announced their commitments to fully divest.

At the University of Sydney, during the 2014 SRC election, a referendum was held in which 80 per cent of students voted ‘yes to divest’. This followed from lobbying efforts by the Fossil Free USYD group, in collaboration with Greenpeace, to get the University to rule out investments in the fossil fuel industry — such as their “minority stake in Whitehaven Coal” — in a similar fashion to their ban on investment in tobacco companies.

In February 2015, the University announced a commitment to reduce its overall investment portfolio emissions by 20 per cent by 2018. It promoted this move as the University taking a “leadership position on carbon reduction”, and was covered favourably by the media. However, this statement  contained no commitment to divest from fossil fuels, with such a strategy dubbed a “blunt instrument” compared to the University’s “whole of portfolio approach”. Sara Watts, former Vice-Principal (Operations), justified the University’s  continued investment in fossil fuel companies to the ABC, saying, “Those organisations are also investing heavily in building renewable energy sources and we know that some non-fossil fuel producers are actually heavy carbon emitters”.

USyd’s 2017 Investment Policy requires external investment managers to “consider the overall carbon footprint intensity of the investments” and measure “the carbon footprint intensity of the listed equity sectors of the relevant investment funds and benchmarking against the carbon footprint intensity of broader market indices”. The weakness of this requirement has been met with criticism from students, spurring the #DivestTheRest campaign.

The University’s 2015 commitment also contained an assurance that it would “measure and publicly report progress towards this goal annually.” However, the first ‘report’ to be publicly released was six months late, and its format obscures how alleged progress has been achieved. In an email to Fossil Free USYD in April 2016, Provost Stephen Garton acknowledged that the University had been “remiss in communicating this progress”. While the University reported having achieved 40 per cent of its 20 per cent reduction target ahead of time, it it has been criticised by the Asset Owners Disclosure Project (AODP) for a lack of transparency. Dr John Hewson, chair of the AODP, stated: “This is encouraging but as AODP found last month, media releases don’t always lead to concrete action and we encourage USyd to provide full disclosure so that stakeholders can measure progress and not promises.”

The Fossil Free USYD group suspects that the reason behind the lack of transparency and resistance to proper divestment may be due to monetary and other ties with the fossil fuel industry. Some of these ties lie outside of investments, and have been illuminated by the release of Fossil Free Universities’ #ExposeTheTies report. They may include donations, research funding, scholarships and personal relationships between university management and industry. For example, the University has “major research and commercialisation ventures” with Rio Tinto, such as the Rio Tinto Centre for Mine Automation (RTCMA); hosts a Cooperative Research Centre for mining; and conducts geo-science excursions with industry that are aimed at encouraging early geo-science majors to pursue a career in fossil fuels. The students in the Fossil Free group question the University’s ability to consider the best interests of their students and staff while these ties allow the fossil fuel industry to have influence over the University’s internal management.

Amy Russell is part of Fossil Free USYD. If you are interested, you can find Fossil Free USYD on Facebook and join their group, or email to get in contact.