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The Magna Charter

21 March 2016

Carbon Neutrality. Divestment. Research and Education. There are many different pathways to sustainability.  

The University of Melbourne is soon to publish its first Sustainability Charter after receiving feedback from staff, students and alumni on a draft released in October.  

With University Council approval, the final charter will be released in March.  

The general response to its development has been positive. However, perhaps unavoidably in a complex institution like the University, the charter will be met with both excitement and disappointment.     

The Sustainability Charter is intended to act as a “framework for embedding social and environmental sustainability across all facets of University work”. Its commitments will later be translated into actions and targets set out in a five-year Sustainability Plan.

Feedback on the draft charter was a mix of praise for the undertaking, criticism that the scope was too broad, not broad enough and, of course, demands for divestment.  

The colourful and sometimes completely contradictory feedback received reveals the gulfs that exist within those who care about sustainability.

One suggestion reads: “A smattering of research and some climate change themed breadth subjects is like pissing in the wind compared with the financial and political power of corporate coal burners, especially when they are financially supported by the University.”

Another reads: “…the charter should be aiming to instil sustainable practices in the student and professional teaching body…fostering and encouraging sustainable practices in students, changing hearts and minds and involving everybody… in the sustainability challenge is paramount.”

Professor Rachel Webster, a member of the Sustainability Executive responsible for drafting the charter, says that they have taken a holistic approach to the issue.  

“The way we’ve set the charter up is to say that the University as an institution should take responsibility for sustainability on a bunch of axes – research, teaching and learning and around engagement, promoting sustainability through public dialogue but then also… moving toward becoming carbon neutral.”

The University has already committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030 – a date that some members of the Sustainability Executive would like to move forward, says Professor Webster.  Webster believes if the University could achieve carbon neutrality it could become a blueprint for other organisations to do the same.  She’s been frustrated by a lack of government leadership on the issue but says that the University is now demonstrating that “as an organisation we can do this without them.”

There have been no major changes made to the draft following feedback. Although, Indigenous Australians and their sustainable custodianship of the land will now be included in the charter in response to suggestions made.

Importantly for the many students and staff who submitted feedback asking for divestment, the charter does not make a commitment to do so.   

The updated draft states that the University will “implement investment strategies consistent with the University’s commitment to sustainability and its financial and legal responsibilities.”

Professor Webster notes that there will, however, be a working group to provide some advice on divestment when the time comes to draft the sustainability plan.

Environmental activist group Fossil Free Melbourne University has led a vocal and organised campaign calling for divestment for over two years.  

UMSU Environment Officer and Co-coordinator of Fossil Free MU Anisa Rogers says she has been invited to take part in the working group but also that she wishes they had been brought into the consultation process earlier.

“I think a better way to do it would [have been] to consult and then write it up,” she says in regards to the draft.

The efficacy of divestment in tackling climate change is a long-standing subject of debate amongst economists and environmentalists alike. In a 2014 opinion piece published in The Australian, Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis outlined financial challenges associated with divestment and its possible risk to future students.

Professor Webster agrees that divestment is a complex issue. On the one hand she says, “I don’t think divestment makes a lot of sense in and of itself because we’re so entangled with the companies that are ‘responsible’ for producing carbon dioxide. To say we’re going to divest University funds doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Webster believes that what we need to do is find ways to move away from a reliance on the products these companies produce.

Rogers says that Fossil Free MU doesn’t expect that divesting will cause the fossil fuel industry to collapse but that “it’s about a broader social narrative”.

“As a university they should be leading in these sort of issues.”

In regards to the argument that divestment poses financial risks, Rogers says “that argument has been debunked by multiple research papers.”  

She refers to an analysis from economist Professor Ross Garnaut, which states that the bursting of the carbon bubble will hurt investors.

However, in regards to all things not related to divestment, Rogers says, “the charter is incredible and shows a lot of hard work.”

The Sustainability Charter is set to be published on 18 March and public consultation on the sustainability plan will begin soon.


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