Who’s afraid of a sustainable future?

Social ResponsibilityNewcastle City Council has voted to insert a clause into its Investment Policy that declares a “preference to enter into environmentally and socially responsible investments” where all other conditions are equal.

Yet from the hysterical reaction to this very modest step you would think that the Council had voted to close down coal-mining in the Hunter.

In fact, Newcastle City Council has virtually no power over what the coal industry does in this city. The Council holds only indirect investments in the coal industry through its term deposits in banks, amounting to about $270 million. The step that the council took in declaring its preference for environmentally and socially responsible investments was largely symbolic.

For that, the councillors who voted in favour of the move are being accused of threatening the future of the coal industry and the livelihoods of residents.

We have done no such thing.  Perhaps we should all go back into the council chamber to reverse our decision, as Liberal councillors would like us to do.  Should we then vote instead for “environmentally and socially irresponsible investments”?

What the Liberals really want us to do is just shut up about social and environmental responsibilities, because those responsibilities directly point us away from industries that threaten our climate, job security and the very viability of the land that sustains us. However, it is incumbent upon us as councillors under Section 232 (2) of the Local Government Act 1993 to “represent the interests of the residents and ratepayers” and to “provide leadership and guidance to the community”.  To my mind that means being responsible, in all senses of the word, with our investments.

Council’s decision reflects an increasingly widespread community desire for safe, clean, sustainable technologies and energy sources that do not fuel global warming. Globally, July was the hottest month ever on record and 2014 the hottest year. Fossil fuels such as coal are the source of most of that warming.

But the really scary fact for the coal industry barons, and their political champions like Joel Fitzgibbon, Bob Baldwin and Tony Abbott, is that renewable energy technologies are becoming more and more economically viable and politically popular.  Meanwhile, the demand for shipped coal is falling along with the share value of coal producers, as the global economy stalls and developing nations switch to domestic or alternative energy sources.

Not only is the Australian coal industry a major contributor to global warming it also employs fewer workers as it becomes increasingly automated and lays waste to vast tracts of our best agricultural land, excavating “voids” at an alarming rate.  Meanwhile, thanks to the NSW State Government, the very wealthy coal industry is able to avoid paying Section 94 contributions normally required of major developments to Council to fund city infrastructure.

While the multinational coal companies have made billions of dollars in profits, the real coal-miners, those who have actually put in the blood, sweat and tears to extract the coal, the rewards have been modest. Coal-miners, through their unions, have had to struggle to secure safe working conditions and fair pay. For these workers and future generations, the opening up of new opportunities in skilled, clean, safe, sustainable industries would no doubt be most welcome.

Newcastle needs to think about a future beyond coal. Global warming threatens us all. A diverse economy is a strong, resilient economy. Council’s change in investment strategy reinforces a growing movement towards ethical investment. The discussion should not be hijacked by scare-mongering vested interests. We need to focus on what is the best strategy to ensure a healthy, safe and secure economic future for the people of our region.  In adopting its investments resolution, Newcastle Council has initiated this vital discussion.

Therese Doyle

Greens Councillor, Newcastle City Council

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