Pressure on banks to pull their investments out of new fossil fuel infrastructure is now being joined by a direct divestment strategy. Growing numbers of mainstream institutions, such as universities, religious organisations and councils, are signing up to the global “Go Fossil Free” campaign by pledging to withdraw from stocks and shares in coal, oil and coal seam gas companies. The Uniting Church Synod of NSW and the ACT is one of the first Australian institutions to commit to divest.
To have a reasonable chance of avoiding the two-degree “tipping point” of catastrophic global warming, the vast majority of fossil fuels will need to remain in the ground or under the sea. But Australia’s fossil fuel reserves may be enough to tip the balance.
What difference does it make if a few institutions pull out their money, in the face of Australia’s massive coal and gas boom?
Divestment has a proven record of helping to bring about political change. A divestment campaign targeting South African companies in the 1980s is one example – it is credited with having played a role in the downfall of apartheid.
Divestment places moral and economic discussions about climate change squarely into the mainstream of our society.
Globally, fossil fuel assets are worth trillions of dollars on corporations’ balance sheets, assets which they fully intend to exploit. But are our institutions prepared to likewise profit from climate change? For the Uniting Church, divestment is a matter of integrity. “Our church’s commitment to ecological sustainability must be expressed not only in words but also in the life and actions of the church,” said the proponents of the divestment proposal, which was unanimously passed by the Synod in April.
As governments move to control carbon emissions, fossil fuel “assets” will have to be written off. As it stands, the current valuation of fossil fuel reserves poses huge market risks, like the dot.com boom and the credit crunch of years past. Even global financial institutions such as the World Bank, Citibank and HSBC are warning of a “carbon bubble”.
Every extra organisation that joins the Go Fossil Free campaign plays a role not only in pressuring fossil fuel companies, but also in bringing these issues to the fore in public discussion. Judging from the widespread media interest in the Uniting Church’s decision, divestment is a tactic that is working.