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Free me from this mortal fossil

Tim Asimakis reports on the spread of the fossil fuel divestment movement across campuses worldwide.

Last Tuesday Greenpeace launched a campaign against the University of Sydney’s approximate $1 million stake in Whitehaven Coal Limited, a company that stands accused of bulldozing endangered environments and indigenous heritage sites to make way for its new coal mine at Maules Creek.

The campaign follows a period of international scrutiny around the financial portfolios of the education sector: increasingly, universities are demonstrating a new awareness of the impacts of their fossil fuel investments. Earlier this year, Stanford University decided that its $18.7 billion endowment fund would no longer be used to invest in companies whose principal business was the mining of coal. Campaigns to exact a similar commitment from Harvard University are underway.

Research and education-based institutions understand better than most the damaging impacts of fossil fuel extraction and use. As such, a trajectory towards fossil fuel divestment shouldn’t come as a surprise. Stanford President John Hennessy explained his university’s decision in May: “Stanford has a responsibility as a global citizen to promote sustainability for our planet, and we work extensively to do so through our research, our educational programs and our campus operations.”

Sydney University has acknowledged that it bears a similar responsibility. Its current Investment Policy indicates that funds should be allocated according to environmental and social principles. Similar principles drove the University in 1982 to set a global precedent by electing to reject all funding from the tobacco industry.

However, fast forward to today and, in addition to its controversial holdings in Whitehaven, the University’s long-term investment funds demonstrate a broader emphasis on coal, oil and gas based companies. As of September last year, its funds (the management of which is outsourced) included shares in Woodside Petroleum, Oil Search Limited, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Santos Limited and AGL Energy Limited.

It is true that concessions to practicality must be made, and it is clear that the University’s educational and research operations do require long term funding. But it is less clear that fossil fuel investment is a necessary source for that funding. If larger universities, with higher costs and bigger investment funds can manage on what they have deemed to be more ethical investments, then surely our university can too. As a side note, Whitehaven Coal was the worst performing company in the ASX top 100 as of late 2013.

A spokesperson last week reminded Honi that the University’s “portfolio is under constant review to ensure our social, environmental and governance responsibilities are balanced with our responsibilities to students, staff and donors.”

But the impact of that “constant review” is yet to be seen, and, while Greenpeace has taken action against the University’s holdings in Whitehaven Coal, broader campaigns have already begun. Fossil Free USyd, a student organization affiliated with the SRC’s Environment Collective has just this past week gathered enough signatures to force a referendum of the undergraduate student body, to be held during the upcoming SRC elections, on the ethics of the University’s fossil fuel investments. The USU is likewise taking steps towards change, with all of the student board directors who were elected this year agreeing to stand in support of a divestment campaign.

Universities have forever tried to position themselves at the heart of the social consciousness, and in the slow march towards a fossil free future, our university claims to be in the vanguard. It must now decide how it is going to support those claims.