The Divestment campaign was introduced to Australia by 350.org in around 2013. It sought to build a network of local groups across the country advocating for institutions to divest: to sell off or otherwise reduce their holdings in companies associated with fossil fuels. The campaign also sought to compel organisations to immediately freeze new investments in fossil fuel companies and end fossil fuel sponsorship. The campaign peaked in 2018, and had largely moved into hiatus by the beginning of the 2020 Covid pandemic. By 2022 individual divestment campaigns were hosted on Fossil Free Australia, while Market Forces continued to focus on efforts to convince Australian banks to divest.
- Campaign primary issue: Climate change
- Campaign sub-issue: Fossil fuel finance
- Overall campaign goal: Secure commitments from institutions to divest from fossil fuels
- Primary group: 350.org Australia
- Associated groups: Fossil Free, Market Forces
- Location: Australia wide
- Time period: 2013-today
The demand for organisations to divest as a means of driving meaningful action on climate change has been around since the early 1990s (Ayling and Gunningham 2017), when Greenpeace was using this approach to convince insurance companies to de-invest in fossil fuels (Leggett 1993). More recent incarnations were promoted in 2012 with Bill McKibben’s publication of “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” in Rolling Stone magazine (McKibben 2012). Before this, similar activism had occurred during the United States 2007 presidential primary campaigns (Ayling and Gunningham 2017). In his arguments McKibben noted how divestment was a successful strategy against the apartheid regime in South Africa that can work again. You can watch his video explaining this argument here.
In 2008, 350.org was established, with their organisational name referring to what is considered a safe limit for atmospheric CO2 levels, beyond which dangerous climate change is risked. With the publication of McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, the campaign grew and was able to target the 200 leading publicly traded fossil fuel companies. The campaign went global, with new organisations developing in Australia and partners and allies of 350.org identified in 187 other countries (Ayling and Gunningham 2017).
- Achieve a complete break between institutions and fossil fuels.
- Raise awareness of climate change and the role of corporations within it.
- Bring the stability and reliability of the fossil fuel industry and its profits into doubt through highlighting the risk of stranded assets—those assets which lose value and are unable to be recovered by investors
The campaign initially focused on universities. After 2016, the campaign targeted organisations such as local, state, and federal governments, banks and other financial institutions, pension funds, and religious organisations. In total, hundreds of different organisations were targeted by groups engaging in the campaign. The following websites provide lists within different categories.
Tactics / Methods / Tools used
A detailed analysis of the Divestment campaign published in ‘Civil Resistance Against Climate Change’ grouped tactics used in the campaign into five categories: information sharing, eco-activities, meetings/administration, social/fundraising, and civil resistance tactics.
As shown in the figure below, divestment events promoted on Facebook pages are spread across all event categories, with the most common event types being ‘information sharing’ and ‘civil resistance’ tactics. ‘Information sharing’ events included organising market stalls, public forums, and film nights. Understandably, there are relatively few eco-activities organised by groups involved in the campaign, and there are a similar number of administrative events and civil resistance tactics.
The most common type of ‘civil resistance’ action were divestment days, where individuals are encouraged to divest their own finances from institutions supporting the fossil fuel industry.
350.org Australia, Fossil Free Australia
Partners / Allies / Supporters
The Divestment campaign was initiated in Australia by 350.org in 2013, and it quickly grew to a point where the organisation could employ staff. They soon helped develop local 350.org groups, supported the formation of university campus-based Fossil Free groups, and shared campaign information with other environmental groups around the country.
By 2019, 29 Fossil Free Australia and 350.org groups had emerged, while a further 27 other groups promoted Divestment campaigns or divestment related events. This data indicates that the Divestment campaign appears to be primarily dependent on just two groups: Fossil Free and 350.org. Of the more than 1,000 divestment-related events promoted on Facebook pages between 2013 and 2019, 85 percent of these were undertaken by these two umbrella groups.
The following table shows the groups that organised divestment related events between 2013 and 2020 (further details can be found at Gulliver et al., 2021). The range of groups engaging in the campaign was substantial, indicating widespread awareness of the campaign asks across various environmental movement groups.
|Number of sub-groups
|Number of divestment events
|Australian Youth Climate Coalition
|Bendigo Sustainability Group
|TUU Enviro Collective
|Uni Students for Climate Justice
|Blue Mountains Climate Action
|Climate Action Canberra
- Minerals Council of Australia
- Australian Federal Government
The Minerals Council of Australia accused divestment activists as acting illegally (Saunders 2014). In addition, some industry advocates have sought to make secondary boycotts—campaigns designed to prevent the supply of goods and services—illegal, with no success to date (Seccombe 2019).
This campaign targeted a wide range of corporate and government entities, including universities, banks, and local council and community organisations. Analysis of targets and outcomes undertaken in 2020 (see Gulliver et al., 2021) found that most divestment announcements had been made by Superannuation funds and Local Councils.
Up-to-date lists of outcomes are available on the Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Commitments Database. This list can be filtered to identify Australian commitments.
The number of divestment announcements occurring independently of any observable activism suggests other factors are influencing organisations’ choices to divest. In particular, very large numbers of superannuation funds and many government entities are divesting without specific activist pressure. On the other hand, only half of the educational institutions targeted have made divestment announcements. This implies that campaign activities may not be directly linked to the occurrence of divestment announcements (see also Abrash Walton 2018). Given the financial significance of divestment announcements, there may be many other factors influencing an organisation’s choice to divest. Some organisations may refuse to divest despite sustained activist pressure, and others may divest independently or prior to any activist pressure.
The data shows that activists have secured divestment commitments from numerous Australian organisations, although the extent to which these translate into actual divestment is unknown. It is also unclear whether successful divestment commitments have any measurable effect on fossil fuel companies if there are an equivalent number of new buyers willing to buy those divested shares. The Australian Institute notes the importance of understanding the different types of divestment commitments (available here).
Reflections on Outcomes
The campaign has been successful both internationally and in Australia. For example, at the time of this writing, over 1,300 organisations around the world have publicly committed to divestment by early 2021, including large groups such as the World Council for Churches and the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund. However, whether this success continues or translates into actual emissions reduction is less clear. Some authors argue that it is unlikely the campaign will cause any direct effect on the valuations of fossil fuel companies, although they may impact coal stock prices (Ansar, Caldecott, and Tilbury 2013). A combination of state ownership, loss of shareholder engagement, and the quick and easy buy up of divested stocks by other investors means that their asset prices are to some extent protected.
Goals such as a loss of social licence to operate—that is, promoting a message that investing in fossil fuels is morally wrong—is what may drive divestment activists at present and can indirectly lead to change in market norms and the stigmatisation of the fossil fuel industry – Ansar, Caldecott, and Tilbury 2013.
- Fossil Free Australia
- Find current divestment targets: https://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/efforts/fossil-free-australia
- Get information from Market Forces on divestment https://www.marketforces.org.au/info/key-issues/divestment/
- 350.org has a collection of photos from the 2015 global divestment day accessible here.
Other Analyses of the Campaign
- Watch a discussion from The Climate Council ‘Politics in the Pub’ Youtube video where Simon Sheikh & Tom Swann talk about the divestment campaign and how we can unlock the $1.8 trillion potential of Australian super for driving powerful change.
- Read this Conversation article by Dr Luke Kemp from 2016 arguing that ‘the fossil fuel divestment game is getting bigger, thanks to the smaller players’.
- Read a Guardian article called ‘Fossil fuel divestment: a brief history’ by Adam Vaughan (9 Oct 2014).
References / Sources
Note – Sections of text in this case study were sourced from the book ‘Civil Resistance against Climate Change’ (2021) with the permission of the authors.
- Abrash Walton, Abigail. “Positive Deviance and Behavior Change: A Research Methods Approach for Understanding Fossil Fuel Divestment.” Energy Research & Social Science 45 (2018): 235–249.
- Ansar, Atif, Ben Caldecott, and James Tilbury. “Stranded Assets and the Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign: What Does Divestment Mean for the Valuation of Fossil Fuel Assets?” Oxford: Stranded Assets Programme, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, 2013.
- Ayling, Julie, and Neil Gunningham. “Non-State Governance and Climate Policy: The Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement.” Climate Policy 17, no. 2 (2017): 131–149.
- Gulliver, R, Fielding, K., & Louis, W. (2021). “Civil Resistance against Climate Change.” International Centre on Nonviolent Conflict.
- Leggett, Jeremy. “Climate Change and the Insurance Industry: Solidarity Among the Risk Community?” Greenpeace, 1993.
- McKibben, Bill. “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”. Rolling Stone 19, no. 7 (2012).
- Saunders, Amanda. “Coal-Mining Lobby Says Anti-Investment Campaign May Be Illegal.” Australian Financial Review, June 23, 2014.
- Seccombe, Mike. “Activism and Secondary Boycotts.” The Saturday Paper, November 9, 2019.
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