In April 2013, a resolution was passed by the Uniting Church Synod of NSW & ACT to divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy. The proposal was an initiative of Uniting Eco Group, and was ground-breaking for mainline Australian churches at the time. Here is the Resolution that was passed.

Divestment resolution

That the Synod:

(i) note

(a) its previous resolution on climate change, which called for creation care to be integrated into all aspects of the church’s worship, witness and service;

(b) the clear evidence that the threat of climate change is not being adequately addressed by our state and federal governments, or the international community;

(c) that rapid expansion of fossil fuel mining (particularly coal and coal seam gas) in Australia is directly threatening agricultural land, human health and biodiversity;

(d) that 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”;

(e) that to avoid more than a 20% chance of global temperatures rising beyond the ‘extreme danger benchmark’ of 2 degrees, 80% of the known coal, oil and gas reserves will need to remain untouched;

(f) the global “Go Fossil Free” campaign to divest from fossil fuel corporations, which is based on the very successful global divestment and sanctions campaign against South Africa during the apartheid years;

(ii) determine as a matter of policy that the Synod should divest from corporations engaged in the extraction of fossil fuels and move instead to investing in renewable energy stocks.

(iii) request the EIMC identify the companies affected by this policy, and bring a report to the October meeting of Synod Standing Committee (in a session to which the proponents are to be associated), with the expectation that if the policy is not found to be impracticable, it will be carried out.

(iv) require all NSW/ACT bodies whose investments are not managed by Treasury and Investment Services to implement the policy once finalised by Synod Standing Committee.

(v) request the General Secretary write to other Synods and the Assembly advocating that they also join the divestment campaign.

Download resolution with full rationale

Visit ARRCC for the most recent thinking and practices around divestment.

Responses to objections

After the Synod’s decision to divest from corporations engaged in the extraction of fossil fuels, there were been a number of objections to divestment expressed by Uniting Church members. Uniting Eco Group members responded directly to several issues that were raised.

Issue 1. In blacklisting the entire fossil fuels extraction sector, the divestment resolution unfairly targets fossil fuel companies that operate in an ecologically and socially responsible manner.

Our response: Regardless of measures which may or may not have been taken to mitigate the direct effects of mining on local communities and local ecologies, the fossil fuel industry has for years deliberately undermined steps towards effective climate change legislation. Globally, fossil fuel reserves are worth trillions of dollars on corporations’ balance sheets, assets which they fully intend to exploit. Regardless of the present social benefits of fossil fuels extraction (which do exist but which are also unequally shared), the core business of these corporations, that is the extraction of fossil fuels, is jeopardizing the climate. To have a reasonable chance of avoiding the two degree “tipping point” of catastrophic global warming, the large majority of fossil fuel reserves will need to remain in the ground or under the sea.

Issue 2. In blacklisting the entire fossil fuels industry, the divestment resolution fails to recognize the role that some corporations play in helping developing countries to access gas and oil (and the royalties from these) for their development.

Our response: Climate change is already a burden on the global poor, for example through the loss of food security, changes in disease patterns and flooding. Without a swift transition away from fossil fuels, the scale of the threat to the world’s poor is terrifying. There is disagreement about the extent to which the efforts of particular fossil fuel corporations are benefiting the populaces (and especially the poorest people) of particular developing countries and regions. But that aside, it remains that case that the core business of fossil fuel corporations is not altruism – they are directly profiting from an escalating threat to the world’s poor. Institutional investors that choose to withdraw their money from fossil fuels are choosing not to profit from climate change. Funding renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions for poor communities could be an alternative investment strategy for divested funds.

Issue 3. The divestment resolution does not recognize that coal is essential for steel production.

Our response: Approximately one third of Australian coal production is coking coal (coal that can be – but is not always – used in the production of steel). Currently, there are no viable technologies to totally replace coking coal (although there are existing technologies that can improve the efficiency of coking coal use, and other technologies in development). The divestment resolution did not distinguish between thermal and coking coal. As with other sectors, our present use and production of steel cannot dodge the issues that needing to leave most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves intact raises. Proponents of fossil fuel divestment do not expect that their actions will lead to massive capital flight and collapse of the fossil fuel industry, any more than did our divestment from alcohol and tobacco in the case of those industries. Rather, divestment is primarily a symbolic, prophetic action whose main value is the public attention it brings to the urgency of acting on climate change, the need to leave fossilized carbon in the ground, and the immorality of profiting from climate change. Such attention is a prerequisite to plans for an orderly but rapid transition away from fossil fuels, which will include difficult questions about the best uses for the remaining carbon budget.

Issue 4. It is hypocritical to divest when we rely on fossil fuels in our day to day living for transport, electricity and so on.

Our response: Our society is deeply dependent on fossil fuels at all levels – individuals and families, our churches, institutions, even our governments’ budgets. However, we are now at a crisis point where the status quo is threatening the well-being of God’s beloved creation, including humanity. It is precisely because of this that advocacy to shift away from fossil fuels is needed. That advocacy inevitably begins from a compromised position given our structural reliance on fossil fuels. Efforts for individuals and organisations to reduce their ecological footprint are important, but they are not a substitute for advocating for structural change. The efforts of successive governments, federal and state, to drive such changes have been feeble. Divestment has a proven track record (in concert with other campaigning strategies) of playing a role in bringing about political change. Decisions of institutions, such as our Synod, to divest from fossil fuels aim to place moral and economic discussions about climate change, and the question of profiting from it, squarely into the mainstream of our society.

Issue 5: Divestment fails to recognize the importance of/opportunities offered by the fossil fuel industry for employment in Australia.

Transitioning away from a fossil fuel economy presents many challenges. However, it also offers the prospect of benefits for communities who don’t only benefit from fossil fuel industries through employment and other revenues, but who also suffer the ill-effects of the industry. Research suggests that renewables would generate more jobs per dollar invested than the current fossil fuel industry. Compensation and income support is required in the transition, and environmental groups and unions continue to work together on these issues. Religious groups also have a role in advocating for “just transitions” and in supporting individuals and communities on the ground as they deal with the transition.

Visit ARRCC for the most recent thinking and practices around divestment.