CONTENT WARNING: Climate Change, NSW/VIC Bushfires
The ANU began to divest from fossil fuels in 2014 under former Vice-Chancellor Ian Young. It was a ground-breaking move followed by many other universities around the country. It made me proud of our university. But just how divested is the university sec- tor from fossil fuels?
You might be surprised to learn, as I was, that every month when the ANU pays super contributions to its staff, a significant chunk of that money flows into oil, gas and mining companies. Why? Because most of the university sector are members of UniSuper and most of UniSuper’s members have never really looked into how their super is invested.
There’s no shame in this. If you’re anything like me, you pretty much never think about super. Most of us can’t access it until we’re 60. I barely plan for next week.
When I got my first tutoring job at the ANU in 2014 (the same year we theoretically divested), the university automatically set me up with a UniSuper account even though I already had a REST account from my hospitality days. I was put in the default ‘balanced’ investment option. ‘Balanced’ sounded good to me and I didn’t give it much thought. I was shocked to find out only last year that UniSuper and I don’t agree on the definition of the word ‘balanced’.
The substance of these investments isn’t exactly hid- den, but you can’t really find it unless you specifically go looking for it. It was certainly never communicated when the ANU set up my account. I only found the details when I went digging on the UniSuper website.
So what was I invested in? BHP (mining and petroleum), Woodside Petroleum (petroleum exploration and production), James Hardie (the asbestos magnate who fought for years against compensation for workers), APA Group (natural gas), Oil Search Ltd (literally trying to find new sources of oil to burn), Fortes- cue Metals (iron ore mining) and Santos (natural gas). Aside from that, it’s big banks and some minor infra- structure investments. Now Australian shares make up more than half of your investments, with BHP and Woodside making up the largest holdings within that section.
Not only is this astoundingly unethical in the current climate crisis, it is also astoundingly short-sighted. This summer, bushfires burned through the majority of Namadgi and Canberra choked on hazardous smoke for months. In other parts of the country it was worse: people, livestock and wildlife perished in huge numbers.
If that doesn’t convince you, it’s also a terrible investment. The world is transitioning away from oil, coal
and gas. By the time I can access my super it will be 2053, and if the world upholds the Paris accord, it will be producing net-zero emissions and fossil fuel companies will be dead in the water.
I still work at the university, and will continue to work here until my thesis is finished. I speak to students, staff and academics daily and I know they are passionate about the climate. I can only assume that Uni- Super is hoping that no one will find out about this.
So what can we do?
The first step is to change investment options. It takes 10 minutes and can be done entirely online. UniSuper claims to offer a “sustainable” version of both the “balanced” and “high growth” pre-mixed options. Just how sustainable these are is a matter of perspective. You won’t be directly invested in fossil fuel companies, but you will still be invested in a bunch of banks that promote fossil fuels. If you want your super invested in actual solutions, there’s a “global environmental opportunities” option which invests in companies actively trying to respond to environmental issues. This gets you invested in railways, solar and wind power and electric cars!
But we can’t leave this to individual action. We need to demand that UniSuper divest altogether so that people don’t end up automatically invested in fossil fuels.
Within twenty years, superannuation will make up two thirds of the Australian Stock Exchange (AFR). This means that super divestment has the power to radically change the value of certain industries. The university sector is well placed to play a part in this. Many academics have almost a fifth of their pay funneled into super.
ANU pays super every month. That means every month more money goes into fossil fuels, but it could go into solutions.
UniSuper must completely divest from fossil fuels. It is not good enough to allow conscientious workers to opt-out. It is not good enough to offer pseudo-sustainable options that launder oil, coal and gas investments through banks. It is irresponsible to invest a cent of Australian university workers’ retirement savings in carbon-intensive industries, when the ANU had to close its campuses at the start of this year due to hazardous smoke. And when ANU staff and students spent the first month of 2020 breathing through a P2 filter. And when our campus was shredded by hail leaving buildings unsafe and destroying some valuable research.
The climate crisis is already here. No more excuses.