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University sets 2021 fossil fuel divestment target

The University of Melbourne has committed to divesting its investment portfolio from companies that do not meet the requirements of a to-be-developed “sustainable investment framework for managing material climate change risk”, by 2021.

The commitment came in the University’s Sustainability Plan 2017 – 2020, which was released today to complement its Sustainability Charter, which was released last year.

Divestment has been a point of contention over the past three years, with student and staff activists calling for the University to sell its shareholdings in carbon-emission–intensive companies. This campaign has been lead by Fossil Free Melbourne University (FFMU), who have called for the University to “stop investing in the top 200 coal, oil and gas companies”.

The University has responded to this pressure at a relatively leisurely pace, spending 2015 developing its Sustainability Charter to set out “the University’s principles, values and high level commitments” and then spending last year developing the plan.

Rather than taking the approach favoured by the Australian National University (which decided in 2014 to sell shares in seven major mining companies) or Queensland University of Technology (which has made a nebulous commitment “to manage investments so that no fossil fuel investments of material significance form part of the QUT investment portfolio”), the University of Melbourne has structured its divestment around requiring companies it invests in to adhere to a “sustainable investment framework”, and divesting by 2021 from companies that don’t.

The University says its framework will be completed by “end-2017”.

The University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Environment Department, which has supported FFMU’s divestment campaign, said in a statement that they are “excited by the commitments” in the plan, but are critical of the University’s divestment model, as providing “no assurance this will lead to meaningful divestment from fossil fuel companies”.

Their statement says “The plan also emphasises engagement with fossil fuel industries […] Engagement with fossil fuel companies is unacceptable.”

While the University’s policy regarding to investment is likely to dominate responses to the Sustainability Plan, the plan is a wide-ranging one, setting targets for the University for its research activity, teaching and learning, engagement, and its campus operations.

Some of the other key targets contained in the plan include:

  • Promoting “industry partnerships that emphasise our resources for sustainability research”
  • A carbon neutral campus before 2030 (including no net emissions from electricity, by 2021)
  • Reducing the size of the University’s car fleet
  • Converting 10% of the University’s car parking spaces into bike parking spaces over the coming year
  • Implement a ‘no net loss’ policy regarding trees on campus
  • Attempt to increase student and staff “personal undertaking of sustainability activities”
  • By 2020, “all undergraduate degree programs can demonstrate (at the course and/or major level) that core and compulsory curriculum enable students to understand apply sustainability knowledge”

The University has set some ambitious targets for itself, and plenty of them (particularly a carbon-neutral campus) are far enough away that they are likely to outlast the current management. Many parties, including UMSU Environment and FFMU have criticised the University for missing its self-imposed deadlines in the past.

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