Fossil fuels, which include coal, oil, and gas, comprised 94% of Australia’s energy mix in 2016-2017, according to a 2018 report by the Department of Environment. Clearly, Australian energy production is dominated by fossil fuels. Australia’s economy is largely intertwined with fossil fuels, and the fossil fuel lobby is powerful in Australia. Unfortunately, despite the urgency of climate change, many institutions, including universities, have failed to disentangle themselves from fossil fuels. With our current emissions of greenhouse gases, we are locked into at least 1 degree of warming globally. This has major negative implications for Australia and the world. 1 degree of warming is enough to threaten low-lying Pacific nations including the Maldives and the Marshall Islands. According to the World Bank, with “future sea levels projected to increase in the range of 10 to 100 centimeters by the year 2100, the entire country could be submerged”. As well as the notorious ‘The point of no return for climate action’ report stated we have until 2035 to fix this situation, before universal and calamitous environmental issues are irrevocable. Australia is knowingly contributing to this fate. In order to minimise the negative consequences of climate change, urgent action is needed. This action includes shifting to renewable sources of energy like solar and wind, growing less greenhouse producing crops like rice, and mobilising our economy to be less fossil fuel reliant. One such way to mobilise our economy in such a way is to halt investments in fossil fuels.
In this article, I will discuss the lingering presence of coal and oil in Monash University’s investment portfolios. Essentially, Monash still has economic ties to oil and gas, and has only committed to a ‘halfway environmental development’, seemingly to satiate activists and secure PR advantages. Divestment can be thought of as the opposite of investment. Where investment refers to the allocation of financial resources to goods, divestment is the de-allocation of financial resources to goods – namely, coal, oil, and gas.
In conversation with Jasmine Walker, a fourth-year arts and environmental engineering student as well as Fossil Free Monash Member, I learnt more about the movement to divest at Monash University. The push for divestment from fossil fuels broadly aims to see the exclusion of coal, oil, and gas from university investment portfolios. Monash University has taken steps towards fossil fuel divestment; in 2016, the university announced it would divest its holdings from coal, but not oil or gas. In light of this gap, I scheduled an interview with Jasmine to learn more about the status of divestment at Monash. However, to Jasmine Walker, this is not enough. Divestment from oil and gas has not been committed to. Further, in the Monash University Environmental, Social and Governance Statement, there is no mention of oil or gas divestment.
Me: So what steps has the university taken towards sustainability?
Jasmine: Firstly, I’ll start off with a history of Fossil Free Monash. We started up in 2015. We had lots of big demonstrations early on to try and get Monash to divest from fossil fuels. In 2016, Monash University divested from coal. However, this is only partial divestment; for full divestment, we would like to see the removal of oil and gas from Monash investment portfolios. After divestment from coal, Fossil Free became quite “lowkey”.
Me: So, what does the future look like for Monash?
Jasmine: We know the future is not fossil fuel. Monash University also understands this. However, they are not making that commitment divest from oil and gas. What Fossil Free want is a commitment to divest fully. It does not have to be tomorrow, but Monash University certainly needs a specific deadline.
It is important to consider how divestment differs from the steps Monash is taking to reduce its environmental footprint through renewable energy initiatives. Whilst Monash has made commitments to become 100% renewable by 2030 through its Net Zero initiative, this change is half-hearted if Monash is still investing in oil and gas. This initiative states that it will “eliminate our dependence on coal-fired energy sources”. The project also outlines energy sourced from large on-campus solar panels and off-site wind farms and other renewable energy sources. Whilst this initiative certainly is impressive and commendable, it is hypocritical for Monash University to claim to be a leader in sustainability whilst still holding stocks in oil and gas. To have a greater claim on sustainability, if such a title is desirable to Monash University, the institution must also remove gas and oil from its investment portfolio. By continuing to invest in oil and gas, Monash University is advocating for fossil fuels. Monash University can, and should, mobilise more of its investments to renewables.
I think there should be a referendum on fossil fuel divestment at Monash University. At Australian National University, Fossil Free organised the first student-run referendum. In elections in September, over 82% of students voted in favour of the ANU divesting from fossil fuels. This was the highest student turnout in a student election in over a decade. Consequently, in October 2014, the ANU Council announced it would divest from 7 companies. I strongly believe students at Monash University deserve to have a say in the management of fossil fuel resources.
It is important that Monash University divests. This is as universities, to quote Walker, can be thought of as the “academic foreground of the country”. They have an important role to play in setting an example to society at large, as well as industry. By divesting, Monash University may propagate an onward chain of divestment. There is still significant work to be done before Monash University can be deemed truly environmentally sustainable. Divestment from oil and would certainly be a step in the right direction.