Environment

More Australian universities come under pressure to divest from fossil fuels

Pressure for the nation's leading universities to join the Australian National University and dump investments in fossil fuels will continue to mount despite the condemnation of such moves by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey.

Faculty members and students at three other Group of Eight universities are preparing open letters to present to their institutions in coming weeks, demanding that the universities sell endowment investments in companies involved in fossil fuel extraction or processing.

Melting moments: University campaigns against fossil fuel holdings are not about to go away.
Melting moments: University campaigns against fossil fuel holdings are not about to go away. Photo: Steve Weston

Academics and alumni of the University of NSW, one of the country's top centres of research into renewable energy and climate change science, will present their letter this Wednesday.

"Researchers at UNSW play a critical role in creating the renewable energy technologies that are rapidly reaching economic parity with, and indeed overtaking on a cost basis, traditional fossil fuel energy sources", the letter says.

UNSW must "ensure that our commitment to sustainability is not just confined to research but is a core part of our business".

The researchers, including from business, economics, health and engineering departments, say they signed the letter "as an act of conscience and fiscal responsibility"

"The carbon bubble will burst and in this dramatic shift UNSW can prosper on the right side of history, or it can hold to the other and suffer the consequences," it says.

The ANU said this month it would shed holdings worth $16 million – or less than 2 per cent of its investments – in seven resources companies, including oil and gas developer Santos. The action whipped up a storm of indignation from Coalition politicians and mining companies.

Mr Abbott used a visit to a new $3.9 billion BHP Billiton-run mine in central Queensland to declare coal was "essential for the prosperity of the world".

The clamour over coal, though, is unlikely to diminish, with prominent academics at Melbourne University and the University of Queensland signing open letters calling for fossil fuel holdings to be ditched.

The ANU move "shows that divestment is really a powerful tool for generating debate", said Vicky Fysh from Fossil Free Melbourne University and also a national co-ordinator for activist group 350.org.

The Melbourne University response involves two separate faculty letters, including from about 75 leading medical researchers and staff, such as Professor Ian Gust, chairman of Biomedical Research Victoria, and Professor Rob Shepherd, director of the Bionics Institute..

In contrast to Mr Abbott's statement that "coal is good for humanity", the medical researchers said the fuel had been shown to cause a variety of ill-health effects, "including low birth-weight pregnancies, birth defects, respiratory disease in children and adults, cardiovascular disease in adults, and cancer".

And through its contribution to climate change, coal "threatens to undermine in a fundamental way" efforts to improve human health, the letter states. "It undercuts many of the discoveries we have made, and much of the care we are able to provide", it said.

"It's quite a big statement because these are thought leaders," Ms Fysh said.

A letter already signed by some 50 University of Queensland faculty echoes similar sentiments and notes that Australia is now the sixth-largest greenhouse gas emitter when domestic and export combustion of fossil fuels is tallied.

UNSW declined to comment on the open letter, while a spokeswoman for Melbourne University said the university "does not currently hold direct shares or directly invest in fossil fuel companies" – a stance taken earlier this year by UNSW's outgoing vice-chancellor, Fred Hilmer.

Nicholas Gurieff, an environment officer on UNSW's student representative council, said universities were seeking to use a "loophole" by claiming their investments were managed by outsiders.

"This assertion that because our funds are managed externally we have no responsibility over them is quite ridiculous," Mr Gurieff said.