Thanks for your interest in the Fossil Free campaign. We don’t have answers to every question, but here are a few that we’ve been hearing a lot:
What is divestment?
When you invest your money, you might buy stocks, bonds or other investments that generate income for you. Universities, as well as religious organisations, superannuation funds, and other institutions put billions in these same kinds of investments to generate income to help run their institutions.
Divestment is the opposite of an investment–it simply means getting rid of stocks, bonds or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous. Fossil Fuel investments are a risk for investors and the planet–that’s why we’re calling on institutions to divest from these companies. There have been a handful of successful divestment campaigns in recent history, including Darfur, tobacco and others, but the largest and most impactful one came to a head around the issue of South African Apartheid. By the mid-1980s, 155 U.S campuses—including some of the most famous in the country—had divested from companies doing business in South Africa. Likewise 26 state governments, 22 counties, and 90 cities took their money from multinationals that did business in the country. In Australia, the University of Sydney joined in the movement to divest from the regime. The South African divestment campaign helped break the back of the Apartheid government, and usher in an era of democracy and equality.
What are we asking for, and who are we asking?
We want institutional leaders to immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities within 5 years.
200 publicly-traded companies hold the vast majority of listed coal, oil and gas reserves. Those are the companies we’re asking our institutions to divest from.
Our demands to these companies are simple, because they reflect the stark truth of climate science:
- They need to immediately stop exploring for new hydrocarbons.
- They need to stop lobbying in Canberra and in state capitals across the country to preserve their subsidies and tax cuts.
- Most importantly, they need to pledge to keep 80% of their current reserves underground forever.
Until these demands are met, we will be calling on our universities to show climate leadership and divest from these companies.
Why divestment? Shouldn’t we just focus on stopping fossil fuel projects like new coal mines, port expansions and coal seam gas wells?
Stopping fossil fuel infrastructure projects are important. Coal plants cause asthma and dump mercury into the air and water; fracking fluid can leak into groundwater and make people sick; port expansions in the Great Barrier Reef will cause huge amounts of damage, and so on. We can and should stand with people on the front lines of these fights to stop projects like the Abbot Point port expansion and Whitehaven’s Maules Creek Mine, that will destroy communities and the planet, and contribute to climate change.
But, we can’t stop global warming one port, coal plant or fracking well at a time–the numbers just don’t add up. At the same time that we’re working hard to stop these destructive projects, we need to loosen the grip that coal, oil and gas companies have on our government and financial markets, so that we have a chance of living on a planet that looks something like the one we live on now. It’s time to go right at the root of the problem–the fossil fuel companies themselves–and make sure they hear us in terms they might understand, like their share price.
Companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, BHP and Rio Tinto have billions of dollars. How can divesting the funds from a few institutions like universities, pensions and churches make an impact?
Divestment isn’t primarily an economic strategy, but a moral and political one. Just like in the struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa, the more we can make climate change a deeply moral issue, the more we will push society towards action. We need to make it clear that if it’s wrong to wreck the planet, than it’s also wrong to profit from that wreckage. At the same time, divestment builds political power by forcing our nation’s most prominent institutions and individuals (many of whom sit on university councils/senates) to choose which side of the issue they are on. Divestment sparks a big discussion and — as we’re already seeing in this campaign — gets prominent media attention, moving the case for action forward. At the same time, there are certain economic impacts. It is estimated that the top 10 Australian universities, by endowment, have around $8 billion invested. That’s a huge number–and getting all of that money out of coal, oil and gas will make a pretty big splash. Add in the big superannuation funds, and church, synagogue and mosque investments, and we’re well on our way to making ExxonMobil, BHP and Rio Tinto sweat. While sale of stock might not have an immediate impact on a fossil fuel company, especially one as gigantic as BHP, what it does do is start to sow uncertainty about the viability of the fossil fuel industry’s business model.
Here’s why: in order to keep warming below 2°C, a target that Australia and nearly every other country on Earth has agreed to, the International Energy Agency calculates that the fossil fuel industry will need to not burn approximately 80% of their reserves of coal, oil, and gas. Those reserves may be below ground physically, but they’re already above ground economically and factored into the share price of every fossil fuel company. Globally, the value of those reserves is around $20 trillion, money that will have to be written off when governments finally decide to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. By divesting from fossil fuels, universities are not only building the case for that government action, they’re starting this important discussion about the fossil fuel industry’s “stranded assets.”
On the flip side of that coin, divestment also starts to build momentum for moving money into clean energy, community development, and other more sustainable investments. Let’s say our campaign succeeds in moving just 1% of the $8 billion that is in university endowments towards sustainable alternatives. That’s roughly $80 million worth of new investments in things like solar bonds, revolving loan funds, and advanced energy industries. More importantly, when other investors, be they individuals or superannuation funds, see the nation’s leading universities begin to move in this direction, they’ll also look into it. University endowments won’t be enough to fuel a clean energy revolution — that’s why we’re still pushing for government action — but they build the case for investment in important ways. (1) Colleges recoup recession losses, USA Today, 9/10/12
Which companies are the worst offenders?
We’re all complicit in fossil fuel consumption, and we should do all that we can to reduce our own use, but the real culprits — the ones who are rigging the system — are the fossil fuel companies. The largest 200 coal, gas and oil companies own oil, gas and coal reserves that represent a significant percentage of the entire global market(1). These companies, incidentally, are also the largest contributors to politicians’ globally — they’re the ones writing laws, getting billions in government subsidies each year and avoiding tax. For example, Market Forces has found that at least $10 billion worth of Australian tax payer dollars go to subsidise fossil fuels .
Top 5 Coal companies
- Severstal JSC
- Anglo American PLC
- BHP Billiton
- Shanxi Coking Co. Ltd.
- Exxaro Resources Ltd.
Top 5 Oil and Gas companies
- Lukoil Holdings
- Exxon Mobil Corp.
- BP PLC
- Gazprom OAO
- Chevron Corp.
For a full list of the companies and their reserves, check out this list.
There are many more companies that contribute indirectly to climate change — the multinationals that build drilling equipment, lay oil pipelines, transport coal, and utilities that buy and trade electricity.Consider broadening your definition to include any company whose primary business is the exploration, extraction, processing or transportation of fossil fuels.
Divestment sounds complicated. Do I need to be an expert to start a divestment campaign?
Nope — none of us at 350.org.au are experts on financial markets, but we’ve talked to a lot of divestment experts and they’ve given us a few tips. It’s useful to have the phone number or email address from a local economist, broker or financial analyst, but it’s not necessary. To kick off a campaign, all you need to do is download this Divestment Toolkit, pull together a crew of your fellow students, and get to work! We are ready and waiting to hear from you to offer our support and guidance. To discuss campus fossil free campaigns, contact Vicky at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What if my university administrators say they don’t know where their endowment is invested?
A common refrain from administrators, and even sometimes university vice-chancellors and councillors/senators is “We can’t divest because we don’t even know where the money is invested — and even if we did know, we couldn’t make that information public because it would reduce our profits.” Well, here’s where you get to play your trump card. It may be true that administrators don’t know what stocks or bonds they own at any given moment, but administrators and councils hire the money managers, and thus get to decide where their money is, or isn’t, invested. If they really wanted to divest from fossil fuels, they would simply need to discuss this with their fund manager and find the right option for them.
It sometimes makes sense to bring public attention to the fact that Vice-Chancellors, Chief Financial Officers and Councils are trying to keep their investments secret, but don’t let this argument distract you from the fact that they are the ones who get to make the call, not the money manager.
Can we still make a reasonable return without investing in Santos and BHP?
While it’s true that fossil fuel companies are extremely profitable (The top five oil companies, last year, made $137 billion in profit—that’s $375 million per day), they’re also very risky investments (1). Coal, oil and gas companies’ business models rest on emitting five times more carbon into the atmosphere than civilization can handle, which makes their share price five times higher than it should be in reality. In addition, disasters like Exxon Valdez, the BP oil spill, along with massive fluctuations in supply and demand of coal, oil and gas, make energy markets particularly volatile, and therefore risky.
Report after report has shown that investing in clean energy, efficiency and other sustainable technologies can be even more profitable than fossil fuels (2). It’s a growing market, with over $260bn invested globally last year, and a safe place for your institution to invest (3).
There are also a number of ways to re-invest locally that help build your community and stimulate good jobs. Projects like energy efficiency and rooftop solar have high up-front and labor costs, but save institutions money in the long run, because electricity, heating and other costs are reduced significantly.
Can shareholders pressure fossil fuel companies without divesting?
Shareholder action can be an effective tool to make small reforms at a company, such as pressuring Apple to institute better labor practices at the factories it works with in China.
Over the last decade, there has been an attempt to use shareholder action to change the behavior of the fossil fuel industry, as well (1). While there have been some limited successes — instituting sustainability practices inside the company, for instance — there haven’t been any resolutions that have been able to address the core problem with the industry: the massive amounts of carbon they insist on dumping into the atmosphere for free. Voting for climate friendly resolutions is a good thing to do, but it’s not going to solve the problem.
In late 2013 a group of 70 investors holding $3 trillion in assets attempted to engage 45 of the world’s top coal, oil and gas companies on the topic of how their business models would need to change in a low carbon world (2). ExxonMobil responded by vowing to burn all of the oil in their reserves, despite warnings by investors and the IPCC. Royal Dutch Shell responded by adopting the same position as Exxon, stating: “there is a high degree of confidence that global warming will exceed 2°C by the end of the 21st century,” and therefore they did not foresee that their assets would become stranded and they would not commit to keeping their reserves in the ground.
Scientists say that in order to keep warming below 2 degrees C, we’re going to need to leave about 80% of the fossil fuel industry’s current reserves underground. This is an achievable goal, but it’s the type of move that no fossil fuel company or group of shareholders would ever vote for willingly. Make no mistake, BHP could still make a profit as an energy company if it transitioned its massive wealth and expertise over to renewables, but they’ll do it because of government regulation, not because they willingly decide to make the move (incidentally, BHP has specifically stated that they won’t move to renewables). That’s why it’s time for divestment.
We need to make the moral stakes of our current situation clear: the fossil fuel industry is wrecking the planet and it’s immoral to profit off that wreckage. Divestment is a clear and powerful action that helps build the case for government action, along with making the economic point that we should be moving our money into the solution as supposed to the problem. If we’d started this campaign 30 years ago, then shareholder action and investor pressure would make more sense, but with the rapidly closing window for action, we need to act swiftly and boldly. Divestment can be an uncomfortable step to take, but it’s the right thing to do — and it will make a far greater impact than any shareholder resolution we could ever pass.
How do I get involved?
Kicking off a divestment campaign is easy. The first thing to do is sign up for updates at gofossilfree.org. Then, take a look at our map of campuses and other institutions that have divestment campaigns going, and get in touch with local organisers through our easy contact tool. If there isn’t anything going on yet, sign your campus up here and download the toolkit.
A good place to start a divestment campaign on your campus is to set up informational meetings with your school’s Chief Financial Officer or investment committee. From there, you might decide to start a campus petition targeting the institution’s Vice-Chancellor or Council/Senate. Engaging your student body by running stalls, holding information sessions, putting up posters, and other public education tactics is a good next step.
From there, the work we need to do won’t all be exciting. Some of you may need to go to jail before this is over, but long before that the labor will be dryer and harder—it involves meetings and petitions, rallies, and all the work of being an organiser on a campus. Some of it will be uncomfortable—it will involve asking good people and institutions to change their ways. But this is the fight of our lives, and we’ll be right behind you every step of the way.
I’d like to divest my own money from fossil fuel companies as well, how do I do that?
As grassroots divestment campaigns take hold of institutions across the country, many individuals are taking matters into their own hands and choosing to divest their personal finances from fossil fuels. And that’s great!
Fossil fuel companies are currently overvalued, and as the international community moves toward regulating carbon emissions, divestment may be a good long-term investment strategy as well as the right thing to do. To learn more about going Fossil Free, head to this website: gofossilfree-org.gofossilfree.org
The not-so-fine print: The Fossil Free campaign and 350.org.au are not making investment recommendations, but merely providing information about possible alternatives to fossil fuel related investments. Individuals should evaluate any investment alternative for personal appropriateness.
What does 350 stand for?
350 parts per million is what many scientists, climate experts, and progressive national governments are now saying is the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere.
Accelerating arctic warming and other early climate impacts have led scientists to conclude that we are already above the safe zone at our current 390ppm, and that unless we are able to rapidly return to below 350 ppm this century, we risk reaching tipping points and irreversible impacts such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and major methane releases from increased permafrost melt.
For more on the science of 350, vsit 350.org/science