Researchers slam uni divestment scheme

A GROUP of University of Queensland professors has slammed the global divestment initiative started in the US as a senseless “blame-shifting” exercise aimed at demonising so-called “big emitters” when the targeted universities are significant fossil fuel consumers themselves.

Anthony Barich

While the challenge to decarbonise the economy is huge, the fact that about a third of the world’s population lacks access to modern energy services and live in poverty means today’s generation –benefactors of the wealth derived from fossil fuels and other natural resources – must find alternatives that will not compromise the world’s poor, according to the group.

Yet rather than taking responsibility, “too many in the world focus on what others must do”, UQ Energy Initiative director Chris Greig; Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology executive dean Simon Biggs; and Centre for CSG director Andrew Garnett said in a UQ newsletter.

“Demonising so called “big emitters” seems to us a futile exercise in blame shifting. The accused companies producing, converting and consuming fossil fuels are providing the basic goods, services and opportunities that society desires and, in many cases, considers a basic right,” the newsletter said.

“Indicative of this blame shifting is an international campaign, initiated in the US, calling on universities to drop their investments in companies engaged in fossil fuel production and processing.”

“Investment decisions should not be driven by political or other advocacy agendas. As the leadership of Harvard University has said, ‘token fossil fuel divestments risks positioning a university as a political actor rather than an academic institution’

“Public education and research institutions, as most in Australia are, should actively and positively engage with many stakeholders, including industry, to solve large and complex societal challenges.

“These include the fossil fuel (and other) energy sector companies, as both a responsible investor and as a partner in pursuing innovation to facilitate Australia’s transition to a more sustainable energy mix.

“Pursuing fossil fuel divestment would suggest a university is unaware of the context in which its research takes place or the world in which its graduates will seek employment.”

While many Australian universities were recently targeted by this divestment campaign, the professors urged the institutions to “think carefully” about such actions. They say universities should focus on being pro-active, rather than beating down fossil fuel companies which work hard to reduce emissions and find technologically innovative solutions.

Such was the message delivered by an independent panel which recommended Norway’s government pension fund not divest petroleum and coal investments but instead help such companies achieve “climate resilience” and transition strategies.

Most of Australia’s research-intensive universities actively support research, development and deployment of renewable and other low-emissions energy resources and technologies and the UQ professors said it was critical that they continue to “work tirelessly” to investigate, develop and support deployment of low-carbon, economical, energy systems.

“The flip side of these efforts is that all of Australia’s mainland universities are significant consumers of fossil fuels and fossil fuel products,” they said.

“Many universities, including UQ, have made commendable steps in leading the transition to renewable energy but remain heavily reliant on fossil fuels for their energy.”

While UQ has climate controlled offices, lecture theatres and laboratories, the professors say many individuals at the university drive to and from campus and travel abroad.

“In fact, we have a very strong internationalisation strategy and lay claim to being ‘Australia’s most travelled university’,” they said.

“For example, many of our leading academics and managers take more than a dozen intercontinental flights per year. These activities are in pursuit of very worthwhile endeavours but place these individuals in the top 0.1% of personal emitters.”

The point of highlighting this, the professors said, was not to castigate individuals but to illustrate the challenges faced by everyone when tackling emissions during everyday life.

“Informed debate between people with different views is core to the health of any university but it should be intellectually rather than ideologically driven,” the professors said.