When the Australian National University sold its shares in a number of coal companies it received a mixed response. It won considerable support for the University from the public and a stern dressing down from Government and business. Such strong and disparate reactions to a relatively minor commercial transaction show that it scraped tender political and ethical nerves.
The divestment was criticised on the general grounds that such decisions, particularly by public bodies, must be guided only by financial considerations, and on the specific grounds that the ANU divestment and naming of the companies involved were unjustifiable.
The arrest last week of three identifiably religious people drew attention again to Whitehaven’s new coal mine site at Maules Creek, in northern NSW.
The arrests came after a Catholic priest, three Uniting Church ministers, a Buddhist priest and the three arrestees faced off against a line of heavy haulage trucks at the entrance to the site. Why did these people of faith feel it was time to put their bodies on the line?
What is conveniently overlooked is the fact that aviation’s contribution to global emissions varies from two per cent to five per cent or more, depending on who’s counting. Compounding these calculations is the fact that burning fuel at high altitude has nearly three times the climate impact of burning the same fuel at ground level. There is added complexity because the nitrous oxides created are 310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and the effects from condensation trails (contrails) are difficult to quantify.
The international movement to divest from investment in fossil fuels is gathering momentum. Investors are starting to realise the dangers associated with the problem of stranded assets; that is, as governments act to restrain fossil fuel consumption in an effort to address climate change, fossil fuel companies will find their assets being written down. It is of no value to have millions of tons of coal in the ground if carbon taxes or emission trading schemes prevent you from ever digging it up.
From 1 January next year, China will ban the import of coal with high ash or sulphur content and slap a three per cent tariff onto all coal imports. The move is a one-stone-two-bird approach; less dirty coal will reduce air pollution, particularly around its coastal mega cities where restrictions are tighter and the struggling domestic mining industry will be given a boost.