The Effects of Fossil Fuel Divestment

23 Oct 2014

Recently, Australian National University (ANU) made a significant decision… Backed by 82 per cent of their students, ANU divested from seven fossil fuel companies.

The seven companies were suggested by a report commissioned by the university. The companies possessed the lowest social responsibility when ranked against ANU’s ‘Social Responsibility Policy.’

The companies were “Iluka Resources, Independence Group, Newcrest Mining, Sandfire Resources, Soil Search, Santos and Sirius Resources.”

Saphira Rekker is a PhD Candidate within The University of Queensland’s Business School. She operates within the Finance sector of the Business School, and is studying corporate sustainability and sustainable systems.

Ms Rekker believes the divestment movement will not financially impact fossil fuels in the short term, but it may harm their reputation.

“With one or even a hundred universities divesting, it is unlikely to financially impact the companies.

“Yet, divestment can largely affect the reputation of fossil fuel companies and impact their branding.”

“However, institutions such as Stanford University, being among the first divesting from fossil fuels, have increased awareness all over the world which could possibly lead to impacting companies by market signalling of increased risk associated with fossil fuels companies,” she said.

“Research has shown an urgent need to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources.

ANU’s decision is the first Australian university to withdraw their shares in fossil fuel companies. Globally though, ANU is not alone; 13 universities in the USA have similarly divested from their fossil fuel investments including Stanford University.

Further, ANU’s move has triggered action among other Group of Eight universities.

The University of Sydney has curbed any further investments in coal mining following a strong email campaign from Greenpeace. Staff and students at The University of New South Wales have prepared an open letter to address their investment in fossil fuels.

Ms Rekker believes it is fitting that fossil fuel divestment is advocated by universities.

“Academics support and are aware of the need for urgent action, and current developments all over the world clearly indicate this transition is underway.

“As a public institution, universities can, by divesting, raise awareness about the need for that transition.

“Universities are well regarded for representing forward, independent, innovative, and long-term intergenerational thinking, and this is part of showing their voice on what is an optimal solution both financially, environmentally and socially.”

The divestment ‘movement’ has taken hold in Australia as Bendigo Bank, Local Government Super, the Perth and Canberra Anglican Diocese and Moreland City Council have distanced or divested from fossil fuels.

Given the recent attention garnered by the divestment movement, the issues of renewable energy and the future of fossil fuels are highlighted.

Under the Abbott government, climate change and renewable energy has taken a backseat to other priorities such as border control.

The Federal Government were fiercely and publicly opposed to ANU’s decision. The Prime Minister said the decision was ‘bizarre’ and ‘stupid,’ alongside negative comments from the Treasurer and Assistant Infrastructure Minister.

Ms Rekker believes that the Government’s lack of interest in climate change policy is concerning. Further she thinks that ANU’s divestment will bring renewable energy discussions back on the table.

“Investment in renewable energy in Australia has been drastically reduced with the Abbot government. Alarmingly, the Coalition’s review of the Renewable Energy Target has caused investment in clean energy to drop below that of Algeria, Thailand and Myanmar.”

“This is why the discussion around divestment is actually interesting because it places the investment in renewable energy back on the table.

“It is also logical to see it has a way of shifting the flow of money and helps build more certainty in the renewable energy markets by providing these companies with more access to funding for renewable energy projects and research and development. 

Over 40 prominent academics at The University of Queensland have signed letters, urging the university to abandon fossil fuel holdings.

As the divestment movement in Australia grows, passionate debate about climate change and renewable energy will continue.