ANU Aims for “Below Zero Emissions” by 2030, No Fossil Fuel Divestment Strategy in Sight.
By Nuria Olive
For many years, the ANU student body has called upon the University to undertake a complete divestment from fossil fuels. Despite these rising demands, complete divestment may be more complicated than it appears on the surface.
Observer spoke to the ANU Environment Collective about their efforts to promote divestment, and an ANU spokesperson about the University’s current fossil fuel investment strategies to determine what the complications are.
In 2014, ANU committed to divestment from fossil fuels, but this commitment has since changed.
Fossil fuel divestment by institutions includes removing investments in oil, gas and coal companies, and not accepting their sponsorship.
An ANU spokesperson told Observer that funding from companies is “assessed on a case-by-case basis, and includes assessment against key ANU principles”. It was pointed out as an example that ANU does not accept funding from tobacco lobbying groups.
During a student forum hosted by Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt in April 2021, Schmidt highlighted that complete divestment from fossil fuels “is a very complicated thing to do in Australia”. Schmidt pointed to his fiduciary obligations to fund past employees’ superannuation, and that the Australian stock market has a significant amount of fossil fuel companies on it. This would make the University’s stock market investments “highly volatile”.
Schmidt repeatedly spoke about ANU being considerably “underweight” regarding fossil fuel investments.
Schmidt also emphasised that it becomes complicated when drawing the line about what a fossil fuel company is, and whether this definition extends to industries using fossil fuels whose services ANU relies on.
Student activism in this area has been significant. The ANU Environment Collective and Fossil-Free ANU are examples of groups on campus who have advocated in favour of divestment from fossil fuels.
One of Fossil-Free ANU’s initiatives was an open letter to the ANU Council signed by staff in 2016. The open letter called for the ANU to divest completely from fossil fuels as, despite announcing in 2014 that it had divested from seven “socially irresponsible mining companies”, ANU continued to invest more than $45 million in other fossil fuel companies.
In the 2021 ANUSA election, the voting ballot had an extra question on it. This was known as the Fossil-Free ANU student referendum. Students answered the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question: “Do you think the ANU should withdraw all current investments from fossil fuels and commit to make no further investments in the fossil fuel industry?”. 89.36% of students voting answered ‘yes’.
Although these initiatives were prior to current Environment Officer Rex Michelson’s membership with the Environment Collective, he noted that “I can be certain that they [ANU] did not respond in any meaningful way.” Michelson spoke to the outcome of the referendum being a clear demonstration of student discontent with ANU’s fossil fuel investments.
“Their subsequent apathy is again one example of how the ANU doesn’t have the interests of students at heart”, he said.
Michelson highlighted Fossil-Free ANU’s significance within the Environment Collective. He expressed that the initiatives of the group have “taken many forms but the core message has remained consistent, the ANU has a responsibility to be accountable to students and address their complicity in the climate crisis.”
The ANU’s Below Zero Initiative recognises Australia as the most vulnerable country in the OECD to the impacts of climate change. Current commitments include having net-zero emissions in “direct on-campus activities, energy, business travel and waste” by 2025, and having achieved below-zero emissions by 2030. ANU was the first university in Australia to implement a below-zero by 2030 commitment.
However, Michelson asserted that the scope of the Below Zero Initiative “does not account for ANU’s investments nor does it encompass divestment in its efforts” and “is side stepping what ANU students have been protesting and asking for for a decade”.
An ANU spokesperson pointed to the ANU’s Long-Term Investment Portfolio (LTIP) which “has reduced its overall emissions intensity significantly below the benchmark outlined in the Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) policy”. The spokesperson further highlighted that the ANU “is committed to its SRI policy and remains a leader in this space both nationally and internationally”.
ANUSA president Ben Yates told Observer that ANUSA has “an unambiguous stance in favour of divestment”. Yates recognises the complexities associated with complete divestment from fossil fuels, but nevertheless argues “divestment is a question of whether ANU stands on the side of urgent climate action”. Yates also pointed out that the Below Zero Initiative excludes the investment portfolio of the university.
How does ANU stack up compared to other Australian universities?
In the time since ANU’s initial commitment to divest, Monash University has committed to net-zero emissions by 2030, following an $11 million investment from the Victorian government.
Melbourne University’s 2017-2020 Sustainability Plan’s sole initiative was to “have divested from, or be in the process of divesting from” any investments “that do not satisfy the requirements of the University’s sustainable investment framework for managing material climate change risk” by 2021. However, no further steps to divest were taken to meet this time-sensitive target.
UNSW used to be adamant that they would not divest from fossil fuels. However, in 2019, it announced it had decreased fossil fuel investment by over $13 million, largely as a result of continued advocacy by the UNSW equivalent of Fossil-Free ANU.
In 2020, UNSW further announced divestment from “direct ownership and any commingled funds that include public equities and corporate bonds of companies” with more than 20% of its income sourced from fossil fuels. UNSW aims to completely divest from fossil fuels assets by 2025, in line with its own net-zero emissions target.
In 2021, the University of Sydney launched ‘Sustainable Investment Strategy 2030’. This outlined planned divestment from fossil fuel companies, but only those that are not making “determined progress to transition to a low-carbon economy” over the course of the next five years.
Overall, ANU has adopted a strategy to respond to the pressing and ever-evolving impacts of climate change through its Below Zero Initiative.
Despite this initiative being the first of its kind in Australia, it does not include a strategy to divest from fossil fuels, whilst student activism has continually pushed for a complete divestment.
Graphics by Will Novak
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