Students push fossil fuel issue

University of Otago academics are frustrated with the university following an announcement fossil fuel divestment will not be on next week's council agenda.

The Otago Daily Times has obtained a series of letters signed by 24 senior academics - the first dating back to June 2014 - calling for the university's foundation trust to drop its $2.5 million in fossil fuel investments and for the university council to amend its ethical investment policy to prohibit investments in fossil fuels.

The university itself does not hold investments in the industry, but its current ethical investment policy would allow it to.

The letters reveal that in December 2014, about six months after the academics first wrote to the university, foundation trust secretary Judith Thompson reported the trust was ''comfortable with its level of investment'' in the fossil fuel industry.

A further letter, in May 2015, showed the trustees responding they would consider amending the ethical investment policy to ''discourage'' - but not prohibit, as the academics note - fossil fuel investment.

Ms Thompson would not say if the trust's fossil fuel investments would be on the agenda for the trust's meeting next week, because it is ''not open to the public''.

The university confirmed yesterday fossil fuel divestment would not be on the agenda for its council meeting, which will also be held next week.

University centre for sustainability director Dr Janet Stephenson, one of the initiators of the original letter, said she would be ''bitterly disappointed'' if divestment was not on the agenda for the following council meeting in August. In that case, the signatories would have to figure out ''the next step'' of the campaign, but she declined to clarify what form that next step might take.

One of the letters to the university administration said signatories ''understood'' divestment was ''also being considered currently by our closest competitor, the University of Auckland''.

University of Auckland vice-chancellor Prof Stuart McCutcheon said the university had received ''a number'' of letters from students and staff advocating divestment, but the university had ''made no decisions'' on the matter.

In recent months, Oil Free Otago spokeswoman Annabeth Cohen has launched a student campaign for university divestment and made a petition for the cause, which has just over 870 signatures.

She said the university ''might be dragging their feet a little bit'' on the issue but she hoped it would be put on the university council agenda for August.

So far, just over 450 of the petition signatories have been students, while university staff and alumnae make up another 180.

Otago University Students' Association president Paul Hunt said the OUSA was ''currently considering its position'' on the student group advocating divestment.

''Climate change is clearly an issue that is very important to young people, and we need to find a range of measures to address it,'' he said.

University senior lecturer Dr Alex Macmillan, who also signed the letter, hoped the student group's formation would show there was a ''groundswell'' of support for university divestment and convince the university to take the issue seriously.

Fossil fuel fivestment

- Divestment is the reversal of an investment by a monetary fund.

- Divestment has been used as a tool of pressure in a number of political campaigns, including the movement against South African apartheid.

- The extraction and burning of fossil fuels has been shown to be a leading cause of climate change.

- Divestment campaigners argue that divesting from fossil fuel companies helps to limit the consumption of fossil fuels.

- Since the fossil fuel divestment campaign began in the United States in 2011, at least 33 universities and 44 cities have committed to divestment.

- In New Zealand, the Victoria University of Wellington was the first university to divest from fossil fuels last November, and the Dunedin City Council was the first city to divest when it voted to amend its ethical investment policy earlier this year.

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