As part of the school’s climate action plan, the coal-fired power plant on campus is set to stop burning coal by 2017. It is important that the university stay committed to ending its support of dirty energy by ending its investment in coal, as well.
The effects of coal are not limited to the emissions that come out of Abbott. We’re living at an ecological tipping point. Even the most conservative government believes that, for the safety of our planet, we should not burn more than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050. We know that the fossil fuel industry, right now, has 2795 gigatons in its reserves.
When we invest in coal, we are endorsing an industry that kills 21,000 Americans every year and gives asthma attacks to 280,000 more. As a school that seeks to “define the new global university by taking risks necessary to innovate, by imagining the world 20-50 years from now, and by planning ways to solve the worlds greatest problems,” it seems contradictory that we are investing in an industry creating one of the worlds greatest problems.
What is Divestment?
Divestment is the act of selling all of one’s shares of a company or industry for a political or social reason. Through divestment, an investor can reprimand irresponsible corporations. In the past, the University of Illinois took part in a broader movement to divest from companies tied to the government in Sudan, using the money and power of the university system to condemn and work to stop the genocide in Darfur.
We know — as well as the critics of the movement do — that taking our schools investment of several thousand dollars will not bring down the fossil fuel industry. However, when the movement is as broad as it is today (over 500 campaigns building or running fossil fuel divestment campaigns), it has the capacity to send a strong statement to our policy-makers. The goal of divestment is not to single-handedly take down the coal industry, it is to bring attention to the morally reprehensibly actions of these companies, shifting the dialogue in financial and policy arenas.
Because mining and burning coal damages the health of American citizens. Every year in the United States, there are 21,000 deaths, 24,000 hospitalizations, and 280,000 severe asthma attacks attributable to the impacts of mining and burning coal. Damages from the coal industry cause an estimated $100 billion in healthcare costs in the U.S. every year. And as many of the coal-fired power plants are located near low-income communities, they impose the greatest health risk on those citizens least able to afford it.
Because coal is a risky financial investment. More than half of the coal plants in the U.S. are old, inefficient, and require major costly retrofits to continue their operations. And because of the volatility of the price of coal and the rising cost of extraction, coal-fired electricity is fast-becoming a financial loser, one that is being replaced by more sustainable, long-term alternative energy solutions.
Coal has always been a dirty and dangerous fuel. Obtaining it destroys mountains, burning it releases hazardous emissions into the air we breathe, and disposing of it results in hazardous toxic waste that seeps into the ground and waterways where we live and work.
Coal is a risky investment economically, environmentally, and socially.
Because mining and burning coal for energy damages the environment that these citizens live in. Coal-fired power plants contribute to increased mercury, particulate, and arsenic groundwater contamination, as well as increases in smog, acid rain, and regional haze. Coal is the largest U.S. contributor to greenhouse gas pollution worldwide.
Where can investments go?
Today there are alternative investments that make equal or better returns. The emerging renewables and clean technology industries are among the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. economy. Even investing in the local campus community through programs such as green revolving loan funds can provide real returns while creating educational opportunities. For universities, which are educating and training emerging leaders, the question comes down to whether we are investing in the future, with its new technology solutions that will create jobs and a healthier, cleaner world, or in the past, with its risky dirty energy holdings that are contributing to global problems.