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Church to divest from corporations engaged in the extraction of fossil fuels

on 16 Apr 2013by
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The Uniting Church today put its money where its mouth is on climate change.

A day after calling on the New South Wales Government to act to protect farming land, water resources and conservation areas from mining, the church’s Synod of New South Wales and the ACT has determined as a matter of policy that it should divest from corporations engaged in the extraction of fossil fuels.

The Synod, meeting at Knox Grammar School, Sydney, also required all Synod bodies whose investments are not managed by its Treasury and Investment Services to implement the policy.

The General Secretary of the Synod will write to other Uniting Church synods and its national Assembly advocating that they also join a divestment campaign.

At previous meetings the Synod had called for creation care to be integrated into all aspects of the church’s worship, witness and service, saying the threat of climate change was not being adequately addressed by state and federal governments or the international community.

It said that rapid expansion of fossil fuel mining (particularly coal and coal seam gas) in Australia was directly threatening agricultural land, human health and biodiversity.

Its Ethical Investment Principles call for divestment from companies whose activities “involve substantial change to the environment, which is not or proposed to be made good at the conclusion of the activity”.

One member of Synod, Zac Hatfield Dodds, said the church was well past the point of wondering whether it was ethical to invest in climate change.

Synod requested the Ethical Investments Monitoring Committee to identify the companies affected by the new policy, issues that arise from divesting from those companies and how the policy could be carried out.

Alternative investments in renewable energy are to be pursued.

The proposal was brought to Synod by Justin Whelan, Mission Development Manager at Paddington Uniting Church, and Dr Miriam Pepper, a founding member of the church’s ecology network, Uniting Earthweb.

They wanted the church’s “commitment to ecological sustainability” to be expressed not only in words or pronouncements but also by embodying those words in its life and actions. The proposal sought to align the church’s professed commitment to ecological sustainability with its actions in the world.

Synod heard that Australia had one of the highest per-capita carbon footprints in the world and that 74 per cent of domestic emissions could be traced back to burning fossil fuels.

Australia contributed further to climate change by exporting coal to other countries and was in the midst of massive increase in fossil fuel extraction.

If the proposed Galilee Basin mines were fully developed, the annual carbon dioxide emissions caused by burning their coal alone would exceed those of the United Kingdom or Canada.

Likewise, the rate of expansion of coal seam gas extraction, mainly in south-eastern Queensland and northern New South Wales, was astonishing. The implications of such unfettered expansion, not only for the global climate, but also locally for farmland, forests, human health and aquatic life, were severe.

Synod was told that the destructive impacts of climate change were already being experienced, with only 0.8 degrees Celsius increase in global temperature. The future outlook was bleak, with global emissions rising faster than the “worst case scenario” projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Research by the Carbon Tracker Initiative has found that 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground or sea if exceeding a 2 degree rise in global temperatures is to be avoided.

Mr Whelan said, “This means the basic purpose of fossil fuel companies is now a threat to humanity.”

The proposal was part of the global “Go Fossil Free” campaign of divestment from fossil fuel companies.

A more detailed rationale with references can be found here.

See also “Church seeks end to disastrous effects of mining”.

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5 Responses to “Church to divest from corporations engaged in the extraction of fossil fuels”

  • Janet Dawson says:

    Totally support this action!

  • Pam Lorschy says:

    Well done Miriam Pepper, just heard you on the ABC 702 morning show. You were articulate, honest & on message, how proud we feel of our younger people puting this proposal forward and having the strength to follow through. The Uniting Church is in the news for a good news story, its great.

  • Garry Lowder says:

    I deplore the decision by the Uniting Church Synod to classify investment in companies producing fossil fuels as contrary to its Ethical Investment Principles (i.e. not ethical) and believe it to be offensive to many members of the Uniting Church and blatantly hypocritical.

    • Offensive because the position taken by Synod that investing in fossil fuel producing companies is not ethical implies that those who do hold shares in those companies (either directly, or indirectly through our super funds) are unethical, an implication to which I take great offense.

    • Hypocritical because the decision was not accompanied by a commitment by the Uniting Church, and in particular the members of Synod, to stop using the goods and services those companies provide, including steel and electricity from coal, gas with which to cook and heat their homes, and petrol, diesel, gas and kerosene to drive their cars, trucks, buses and aeroplanes.

    I note comments about the need to offer pastoral care to farmers and their families – I see no parallel concern for pastoral care of miners and their families, who after all provide the materials and energy we all use every day, allowing farmers to farm and the rest of us to live in houses, cook our food and get around.

    I hope the broader membership of the Uniting Church will see what a naive and ill-considered decision Synod has made and will require that decision to be reversed.

    And finally, can I assume that, to be consistent, the Uniting Church will refuse to accept donations from people, like me, whose income comes partly from dividends paid by fossil fuel companies (such as BHP Billiton and Woodside Petroleum) and is, by Synod’s definition, derived unethically?

  • Marguerite Marshall says:

    Thank you for being a leader on this issue. This makes me even happier to be a UCA member.

  • Jill Sutton says:

    As the convener of the executive committee of the ACCR (the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility), I was proud to hear last year, and to read in this issue of Insights, that the Uniting Church’s ‘Synod of New South Wales and the ACT has determined as a matter of policy that it should divest from corporations engaged in the extraction of fossil fuels’. I am also very impressed with the more recent responses to understandable concerns like those of Garry Lowder about this new investment policy which now appear on the http://www.unitingearthweb.org.au site. The Uniting Church is indeed blessed to have such articulate and astute analysts as Mirium Pepper and Justin Wheelan contributing to its thinking.
    I would like to add a challenge to their last paragraph however. I agree that the church should advocate for ‘just transitions’ which would include concern for people who become unemployed perhaps as a result of such changes of policy but I would go further. It seems to me that now is the ideal time for the church to consider using some of its own resources for job creation in the areas of alternative energy production. What about a Uniting Church innovative employment program which begins with scholarships for a team of people to qualify to work in this area, for example?
    On another tack entirely, the ACCR would like to work alongside the Uniting Church (or anyone else) on other ways of encouraging big corporations to become more sensitive to our beloved planet. Divestment, as Pepper and Whelan comment, can be an important but mainly symbolic gesture. The ACCR is also very interested in what it calls ‘corporate democracy’ by which it refers to shareholders’ rights to directly engage with the companies they invest in, attempting to change their behaviours toward a more just and sustainable goal. This sort of engagement has some heart-warming precedents in the US which can be studied in more detail at http://www.accr.org.au.

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