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Sydney University halts coal investment

World Coal,

Sydney University has announced it could divest from coal mining, as it becomes the first Australian university to halt investment in the coal industry.

"The university has issued an instruction to its Australian equities managers to make no further investments in the coal and consumable fuels subsector of the ASX," a spokeswoman for the university said.

The university has not yet decided a plan of action for its existing coal investments. The institution holds an AU$ 900 000 holding in Whitehaven Coal, which recently began mining operations at its Maules Creek opencast coal mine, which is among the largest of such projects in Asia.

The university spokesman has not ruled out divesting from coal, though they declined to stipulate the reason for stopping purchases of coal stocks, which companies will be affected by the decision and when the halt in investment kicked in.

The current consultation "over our investment in coal and consumable fuels is part of our ongoing review to ensure we meet our responsibilities to students, staff and donors", the spokeswoman said.

According to Greenpeace, 16 500 emails were sent to the vice chancellor of Sydney University, demanding the institution follow “its ethical investment guidelines” and divest its shares in Whitehaven. The emails were reportedly part of an activist campaign organised by the environmental group.

NSW Minerals Council chief executive, Stephen Galilee, said it was "a shame that Sydney University has caved in to the bullying of environmental activists masquerading as financial advisers".

"The divestment campaign is environmental activism dressed up as investment advice and anyone choosing to take investment advice from environmental activists do so at their own financial risk," Galilee said, adding a recent report commissioned by the council had found the fossil fuel divestment case was based "on false premises and unsubstantiated claims, and may breach Australian law".

Following suit

Sydney becomes the first Australian university to halt investments in the coal sector, although Glyn David, vice chancellor of the University of Melbourne has previously indicated the university would monitor its investments in relation to “the potential impact of climate change”.

However, Sydney follows suit of Stanford University in the US, which announced its plans to divest from coal in May this year.

Set for criticism

Stanford’s decision at the time was widely ridiculed by a number of groups, including fellow universities Harvard and Brown. Harvard president, Drew Faust, explained that a university’s endowment was “a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”

Meanwhile, Brown University president, Christina Paxson, explained that Brown would not divest from coal. "Divestiture would convey only a nebulous statement — that coal is harmful — without speaking of the technological and policy actions needed to reduce the harm from coal — actions where Brown can make real and important contributions, through teaching and research," Paxson wrote in a letter.

That universities should halt investment in coal or indeed divest from the sector was also criticised by the US National Mining Association (NMA). Spokesman for the association, Luke Popovich, said that these moves were “politically expedient” and did not take into account the 3.5 billion people on the planet living in energy poverty, who “certainly won’t have access to the electricity and energy they need in their lifetimes, unless coal generates it,” according to Popovich.

Further, the material impact of moves by universities to cease investment in coal is arguably small. Sydney University’s holdings in Whitehaven Coal, for example, account for just 0.1% of its endowment. Meanwhile, across the US, only 5% of all university endowments were invested in energy – which includes everything from coal to solar.

While Greenpeace and other activists claim victories when decisions such as Stanford’s and Sydney’s are announced, coal is simply too cheap, too abundant and in demand to be affected by university divestitures. Just as with Stanford’s decision, it is likely Sydney’s will simply be another drop in the ocean

Written by Sam Dodson

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