As federal and state ministers line up to attack the Australian National University for deciding to divest fossil fuel investments, on ethical grounds, it’s time for a reality check.
If you believe even half of what the anguished politicians are saying, you’d think it was the end of market-based democratic society. Federal Infrastructure Minister Jamie Briggs warned: “This seems to be taking green activism to a new level where it is damaging Australian companies and potentially job creation in the country.”
This sounds disproportionately dire, thin-end-of-wedge stuff, all because a progressive university wants to tweak its $1.1 billion investment portfolio, for a mere $16 million worth of stocks involving just seven resource companies.
Then again, perhaps this is a tipping point? When our most important security allies, the Americans, want to pull a rogue state like nuclear weapons-ambitious Iran into line, without going to war, they impose trade sanctions. Divestment is the personal and institutional equivalent of trade sanctions, and definitely qualifies as non-violent protest.
So what if divestment is as dangerous as coal’s political allies seem to fear? What will an unravelling of the fossil fuel epoch mean for the Australian economy in general, and the environmental management sector in particular?
It was only two years ago that the financial press reported on a dastardly plot by community-based activists to delay big coal industry projects in the development approval stage. The protest strategy piqued Greenlight’ interest. It was based on analysis that mega mine, port and rail infrastructure projects had a window of opportunity in 2012 and 2013 to get underway. Or failing that, they might never get funded, and therefore never get built.
The Greenpeace-inspired plan was titled ‘Stopping the coal export boom: funding proposal for the Australian anti-coal movement’. It was first made public in a feature article in the Australian Financial Review on March 6, 2012 – and the contents made for bad breakfast reading for miners and mining wannabes.
Greenpeace argued: “If we fail to act decisively over the next two years, it will be too late to have any chance of stopping almost all of the key infrastructure projects and most of the mega mines … Our strategy is to disrupt and delay key projects and infrastructure while gradually eroding public and political support for the industry and continually building the power of the movement to win more.”
From a 2014 perspective, that’s now looking quite prophetic, except the market itself has been critical more than public or political support. The value of coal stocks has fallen drastically since 2012, even while governments have been increasingly tying themselves in policy knots trying to protect the fossil fuel sector, both coal and gas.
Development approvals for mega coalmines have been expedited. The World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is being put at peril to facilitate a giant coal port development. The environmental defenders offices has been defunded. The carbon tax and the mining tax have been abolished. The Renewable Energy Target has been destabilised.
Yet for coal at least, nothing is really working in the face of chronically depressed international prices for the thermal coal used to generate electricity, the flight of capital towards renewables as the future of energy, and surprisingly rapid shifts like China’s anti-smog crackdown for the sake of public health.
If we really are talking energy resource regime change, then in an economy like Australia’s everything changes (with due recognition to Naomi Klein’s new climate change book, This Changes Everything).
Australia won’t stop being a quarry for Asian growth overnight, far from it, but other resource values will become increasingly important to future national economic success:
- The integrity of farmlands and water supplies – food and fibre exports to a world of 9 billion people by 2050 is a vast opportunity, and will underpin robust regional communities;
- The preservation and restoration of terrestrial and marine environments – from generating big tourism dollars to protecting community health to maintaining eco-system services, these are vital strategic investments; and
- Decentralising energy and industry – with energy becoming more solar scalpel than coal sledgehammer, it can be deployed wherever its needed teamed with onsite battery storage, and small-scale additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing).
These changes will demand many skilled jobs, abundant entrepreneurial flair and massive capital injections. A better, cleaner, more diverse economy will be just the ticket for universities to invest in, not divest from, for ethical and income reasons.
By an anonymous columnist who regularly appears on affiliated website Business Environment Network, codenamed Greenlight.