UNSW partially divests from fossil fuel industry

The $13.3 million divestment is a significant win for the Fossil Free UNSW campaign, as the USyd campaign continues to demand similar substantive commitments

A photograph of UNSW campus library and a tower behind it with the initials UNSW at the top. Superimposed upon the photo is the Fossil Free UNSW logo: the words Fossil Free UNSW stacked on top of each other with an orange cross behind it.

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) has significantly reduced the amount it invests in fossil fuel industries, conceding to years of pressure from student activists in the Fossil Free UNSW campaign. 

Between 2017 and 2018, “investments in companies that directly own fossil fuel reserves reduced from $29.5 million to $16.2 million,” according to UNSW’s sustainability policy.

Activists across the world have given significant attention to the ways universities choose to invest their portfolios, many universities completely divesting from the fossil fuel industries, including Yale, Stanford and Oxford Universities, La Trobe University, and Queensland University of Technology.  

This 45 per cent reduction in such investments comes following a commitment in 2017 to begin divestment from fossil fuels. While 2018 brought no divestment updates, UNSW did commit to being completely reliant on renewable energy sources by 2020, signing a solar power purchase agreement with solar farm developer Maoneng and retailer Origin.

UNSW’s partial divestment was announced on the Fossil Free UNSW Facebook page this Wednesday, who remarked that while this is an“acknowledg[ment] that divestment is the right thing to do,” UNSW “are still lagging behind the many councils, universities and whole countries worldwide who have fully divested from the destructive Fossil Fuel industry.”

Fossil Free USYD co-convenor Alex Vaughan told Honi that they “congratulate [their] peers at UNSW who have been unwavering in their commitment to see UNSW divest.”

“It is a reminder that the organising we do on campus is being recognised by the administration and that the voices of students can cause change.”

Fossil Free UNSW is a collective of student and staff activists who for several years have agitated their University to divest from the fossil fuel industries. According to Fossil Free UNSW, the news is, “the result of the cumulative, tireless work Fossil Free UNSW campaigners have been doing for the past 5 years.”

The group have staged several shut-downs of the UNSW Chancellory and other University buildings to attract the attention of management to the need to divest.

In 2016, Fossil Free UNSW occupied the Council Chambers for 36 hours in protest of the Vice Chancellor’s refusal to meet with them.

In September 2017, students blocked exits to the building, shutting it down for several hours, marking the release of a report illustrating the ties between the fossil fuel industry and universities, including members of the UNSW Council. Only a month before, Chancellor David Gonski failed to substantively respond to an open letter with 700 signatures, requesting greater transparency around the financial ties between the fossil fuel industry and UNSW.

In October 2018, Fossil Fuel UNSW once again shut down the Chancellory, this time for 50 hours, calling for follow through on previous commitments to divest from fossil fuels.

Moreover, in 2018, Fossil Fuel UNSW was also successful in running and electing candidates to sit on the UNSW Council — the governing group responsible for managing and supervising the administrative and financial activities of the University. Of the 15 members, two are reserved for student representatives; Ike Schwartz and Nicholas Gurieff were elected to the undergraduate and postgraduate student positions respectively. Both campaigned on explicitly pro-divestment agendas.

As stressed in their Facebook post, Fossil Free UNSW seem to hold a strict desire to maintain momentum and push their university towards total divestment. A petition is currently being circulated to this end. 

The campaign to force universities to divest from fossil fuels goes well beyond UNSW. In recent years, Fossil Free Universities have organised at at least 18 Australian campuses. 

The University of Sydney (USyd) Fossil Free branch has been particularly active in recent years, despite resistance from the University.

After a student referendum in 2014 returned an 80% result in favour of divesting from the fossil fuel industry, USyd announced intentions to reduce its overall investment portfolio emissions by 20 per cent by 2018.

And yet, in April 2019, Fossil Free USYD announced their freedom of information requests had revealed the University invested $22.4 million into fossil fuel companies, “over $9 million more than was known previously.”

Since this announcement, the USyd group has organised several prolific actions around campus.

“At USyd, our university still invests tens of millions of dollars in fossil fuels,” Vaughan told Honi. “It is imperative that Universities divest from coal and join the renewable energy transition.”

Honi understands that USyd is currently devising a new sustainability strategy, in which divestment and energy plans are made, and that Fossil Free USYD members have been attending sustainability strategy working groups to influence the plan’s details.