Keeping Up Appearances – behind UQ’s ‘sustainable’ image

As published in Semper Floreat.

The University of Queensland boasts one of the largest solar panels in Australia, pioneered an entirely carbon-neutral building at the St Lucia campus and is currently a co-signatory to the Universitas 21 Statement of Sustainability, a document designed for universities around the world to commit to ensuring a sustainable future for themselves and their students.

Yet UQ-based environmental organisations such as the UQ Environment Collective, 350.org and Fossil Free Universities still campaign for a more sustainable UQ.

Why? UQ Environment Collective President and active environmental campaigner Ruby Ludski says it’s all a front.

“UQ seems to have good initiatives, but it’s all just for publicity.” Ms. Ludski said. “The last few years there’s been a big push into reducing water, and saving water around campus, but that only came after St Lucia was revealed to be one of the biggest water users in Queensland.

“It’s the same with the Global Change Institute Building (Bld 20). It’s a fantastic initiative, and it’s great to have it on campus, but it was built so UQ can say ‘Look what we did, look how great we are’ instead of making it part of a larger cause.”

Stuart Green, Sustainability Manager at the UQ Sustainability Office, responded with an email sent via his media team, claiming that the university began evaluating their environmental impacts as early as the 1990s.

He also stated, “We recognise that we do not, and cannot, address everything ‘sustainability’.  However, the recognition we have received for our programs and successes demonstrates that what we do focus on we do very well and promote with certainty that it is genuinely improving our sustainable performance.”

Such programs and successes outlined in the Sustainability Office’s reply include the implementation of recycled water irrigation in campus playing fields, recognition as the greatest water saver in Brisbane during the last drought, and a finalist position in the 2013 Banksia Awards.

However, further steps towards creating a more sustainable university may not necessarily be so simple.

Investment and research into the fossil fuel industry also play a significant role in determining how sustainable UQ actually is. According to Fossil Free UQ leader Quentin Lancrenon, this area is where the university falls down.

Since the University of Sydney was discovered to have invested approximately $900 000 in the controversial Whitehaven Coal mine earlier this year, UQ’s investments have been the subject of much probing by concerned students worried where their money is currently invested.

Thus, Fossil Free UQ was born.

“Fossil Free UQ began from a group of students who were concerned about where the university was investing their money. They wanted to make sure that the money wasn’t being put towards funding the extraction of fossil fuels and essentially funding climate change.” Mr. Lancrenon said.

He says the organisation aims to ensure UQ is a sustainable university, and “not just sustainable on the image side of things.” Fossil Free UQ has three central demands:

1)      The immediate freezing of new investment in fossil fuel companies,

2)      Divest completely from the fossil fuel industry within five years

3)      Maximum transparency with regards to the university’s investment portfolio.

Maximum transparency is the key issue of the moment, following the rejection of two separate Freedom of Information requests submitted by the Environment Collective earlier this year.

The rejections, citing ‘not of the public interest’ as basis for the refusal, spark more questions regarding the university’s investments. According to UQ’s 2013 Annual Financial Report, $117.6 million is currently invested in unknown stocks.

Ms. Ludski says that it is “not unreasonable” to expect around 15% of that, approximately $17 million, is directly invested into the fossil fuel industry.

“It’s an outdated industry, and it’s a problematic industry,” Ms. Ludski said. “As a university, we should be solving the problem, not contributing to it.”

Fossil Free UQ representatives also have attempted to meet with Vice-Chancellor Peter Høj on two occasions, the last time being to present him with a petition of 1 000 student signatures requesting transparency with UQ’s investments. Each time Mr Høj has declined.

The other central issue to the UQ Sustainability debate is the question of impartiality in industry-funded research projects, particularly within the fossil fuel mining faculties.

The UQ Centre for Coal Seam Gas (CCSG) research, for example, is jointly funded by QGC (contributing $2 million per year), Arrow Energy ($500 000 per year), and Santos ($500 000).

On their website, the CCSG claims that although companies funding the research are allowed “have a say in how their money is spent”, “the University remains the approving body for all research projects and researchers are bound by the same Research Conduct and Integrity policy as all other researchers”.

Comment from the CCSG was sought, but was declined.

If UQ were to begin divesting from fossil fuels, they would join the ranks of Australian National University (ANU) who recently divested $1.1 billion from fossil fuel companies including Santos, and Stanford University in California, which promised in May 2014 to divest completely from thermal coal projects. Other notable universities considering divestment from fossil fuel-related stocks include Cambridge and Harvard. Meanwhile, the University of Glasgow has become the first fossil free university in Europe.

In regards to whether or not UQ actually is ‘sustainable’, it is not for me to say. What I will say, however, is this:

While it is true that there are two sides to every story, if only one side is made available, the audience is likely to assume the worst. While UQ continues to keep their side under wraps, one must ask the question; what don’t they want us to know?

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