Statement To Council On Behalf Of ANU Fossil Free

This is the second time someone from this group has presented to this council. I want to thank you for the opportunity once more. I would also like to acknowledge the other students from Fossil Free ANU (FFANU) in the room and to pay tribute to their tireless work on this most pressing issue.

In November, many of us sat in this same space as the Socially Responsible Investment Policy (SRI) was approved – inspired by the ‘gold standard’ approach to investment of universities.

So, what are gold standard universities doing on this issue? Divesting from coal.

I will talk first about the financial risks from ‘stranded assets’. I will then talk about the ethics of fossil fuel divestment. This is now a legal pressure, thanks to ANU’s new responsible investment policy. Finally I will discuss the matter of the ongoing engagement of Council and the campaign.

FINANCIAL RISKS  

There is broader evidence that the ANU risks stranded assets on its balance sheet if it persists with fossil fuel assets. Consider the following.

Many have acknowledged the risks to investors and the global economy of a growing carbon bubble – this includes the International Energy Agency, HSBC, Citi Group, World Bank, ANU Professor (and former Liberal Leader) John Hewson and an ex-Bush era Treasury Secretary. The impacts of this bubble could pale in comparison to the Global Financial Crisis.

But this is not just a medium to long-term financial risk – there is heightened risk now.

Social movements and market disruption from renewable energy are causing are huge upheavals to the traditional fossil fuel energy sector. For example, Barclays recently downgraded the credit rating of the entire US electricity sector, due to disruptive impacts of solar and storage. And the rise of the social movements and democratic organising pose the single greatest source of risk to oil, coal and gas around the world.

The most damaging industries are being hurt the most. Here, Victoria has a moratorium on fracking and NSW is notching up its action. This costs the industry dearly, as demonstrated by the successful Bentley blockade and revocation of Metgasco’s exploration permit.

And of course divestment campaigning itself is a major disruptive factor. Research from Oxford Academic, Ben Caldecott, who spoke at ANU’s Crawford School earlier this year, suggests that the stigmatising effect of the divestment movement has a powerful potential to leave this a pariah industry and to do so quickly. It has worked in the past, and this is the fastest growing divestment movement in history.

It is worth dwelling on how this all relates to ANU’s own portfolio. You will remember

that ANU first agreed to divest from Metgasco, a coal seam gas company, in 2011. It then took 18 months to do fully divest. During this time a fierce community campaign from farmers and knitting grandmas sent its share-price falling. ANU finally divested in 2013 – we suspect over a million was lost over that time.

But getting out even at that late stage put ANU ahead. The Bentley blockade resulted in the government revoking Metgasco’s license completely. Now the share price is barely above zero, and ICAC is investigating the company. Maybe the ANU should be thanking us?

Yet as we know, while divesting from Metgasco due to “perceived environmental issues”, ANU was secretly buying Santos shares. A safe bet? Well just this week Santos had its Pilliga coal seam gas field in NSW written down to the tune of $600m due to social movement pressure.

The financial risks of this industry loom, and this Council should ensure it is getting the very best research. We request that the Council directs it researches to outline:

The medium to long term financial risks associated with continued investments in coal, oil and gas .

What impacts, if any, would come from a fossil free portfolio?

That the Council uses analytical tools that are already in-front of it. For example John Hewson’s Asset Owners Disclosure Project requested the university complete a climate risk survey – alongside dozens of other universities around the world. In May, this council resolved to not do the survey – how can that be justified?

All of the aforementioned points should be communicated to academics and students.

 ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS 

The Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) Policy this Council created is about the ethics of ANU investments. It stipulates that we should not invest in companies “likely to cause substantial social injury”.

I want, for a moment, to consider the ethical implications for the university of continued investment in fossil fuels.

It seems, to us, just a little absurd that ANU, leader that it is in climate change research, is hiring external consultants to tell it whether fossil fuels cause ‘substantial social injury’. You could ask any of ANU’s own climate, health or development experts. Indeed a number of them have already pledged support to the campaign.

We don’t know what sort of information these consultants will give you, but here are some uncontroversial baseline statistics.

According to the UN, climate change already kills more than 300,000 people per year, while the mortality impacts on local communities from digging up and burning coal is in the same vicinity. These are the current impacts and they will get exponentially worse as global systems erode and break down. Fossil fuels are a public health threat on the largest scale. ANU bans dealings with tobacco, but the damage from fossil fuels is far worse..

It’s not just about climate change. This is an industry that dumps in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, destroys threatened ecosystems, causes major respiratory issues for regional communities while obstructing proper public health research, pollutes water aquifers and leaks methane. The US is replete with fracking horror stories, but we already have our own cases of aquifer contamination thanks to Santos in the Pilliga.

If this truly “the biggest issue humanity faces”, as the Vice Chancellor has said then I put to you how large would the damage from fossil fuels have to be before you decide ANU must divest?

Our request to this Council is that youc considerthe research provided by  external consultants and how the university invests as simply another bureaucratic process. You each as individuals and as a collective have a moral duty to decide  whether investing in coal, oil and gas can be considered ethical.

ENGAGEMENT

The final point I want to make is around engagement with FFANU.  The fact that we are here, for the second time, speaking to you from this table, shows you see us as legitimate stakeholders, and we appreciate that.

But simply being invited to sit here and speak, for you to note our concerns and then move on, and tell us what you have already planned to do is not satisfactory.

ANU staff recommended you set up a committee to advise on responsible investments. That is the way Stanford does it. You have now outsourced the information task to a consulting company. But you will need advice on what to do with that information. We call on the Council to once again establishing a committee and having student representatives on that committee.

We also call on the Council to make information on the investment portfolio more easily accessible. Most of the information we do have is due to a Freedom of Information request. The ACT Government posts a quarterly update of which companies it invests in – why can’t the ANU?

We will continue to accrue that advice. We now have 1500 petition signatures including a number of staff. This semester we will be running student and staff outreach and conducting our own legal and ethical investment research. We will be providing to you our own original research on this matter.

And when you hand down your verdict in October, and if we find it to be unsatisfactory, then we will respond with our own research, our own committee and renew the strength of our organisation.

Photography by Abigail Widijanto