Students Making a Difference on Campus- UC Fossil Free

Fossil Free UC was a single-campaign club calling on the University of Canterbury to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

We were part of a global ‘Fossil Free’ movement of university students, faith groups, and businesses with a simple premise: since it is wrong to wreck the climate, it is also wrong to profit from that wreckage. Fossil fuel companies’ ties with respected institutions like universities are what give them the social licence to continue business as usual – a business that is destroying the planet, and the futures of the very students UC seeks to educate!

By divesting from fossil fuels, UC could help revoke that social licence, no longer legitimising the destructive business of the fossil fuel industry, and instead prioritise the interests and wellbeing of its students, its staff, and the wider society it serves.

We started a petition urging UC to divest in 2015. Through posters, movie nights, campus stunts, and other events, we raised awareness on campus about the harmful effects of fossil fuels. We found that many students were concerned about climate change, but didn’t necessarily know how they could engage with the issues. Our grassroots action gave students a way to make a difference on campus and beyond.

We delivered our petition to the Chancellor in September 2016, by which time it had gathered nearly 2,000 signatures from students, staff, alumni, and concerned community members.

However, it took another six months of campaigning and raising awareness before we could declare victory. On 29 March 2017, the University Council resolved to have no direct investments in fossil fuels and to reduce indirect investment in fossil fuels to less than 1%.
Our campaign took two years, the dedication of a handful of core members, and the support of thousands of students, staff, alumni, and community members who signed the petition, came to events, and spoke up on behalf of our collective future. Together, we sent a powerful message to the fossil fuel industry: their destruction of our future will not be tolerated at UC. Sadly, the university demonstrated little interest in championing its students prepared to make a difference, or its decisive action in response to their efforts, barely communicating this success to staff, students, and civil society.

Mah Mah (Tohoa) Tetini, UC Fossil Free, PhD student in Anthropology

3 thoughts on “Students Making a Difference on Campus- UC Fossil Free

  1. Tēnā koe Tohoa
    Ngā mihi mo tōu panui. Thanks for your post.
    No-one is saying we shouldn’t save the planet. I am 100% in agreement that carbon emissions need to decline. I have no doubt that fossil fuels will decline in their use.
    However, asking the university to not invest in fossil fuels is nothing more than virtue signalling. The action of the university will make no difference to the planet at all – the planet doesn’t care if we feel good and doesn’t care about our virtue signalling. We will not impact on the profitability of fossil fuels at all and we will not alter demand for those fuels by 1 litre. That we feel good about it is of nice but it’s what it achieves that matters.
    If you really want to make a difference then you need to consider ways in which we make it more expensive to consume fossil based fuels. I would suggest supporting a uniform carbon emissions tax which is then rebated to all taxpayers as an equal lump sum payment. That makes it revenue neutral (so it is not a tax grab) and changes the relative price of carbon based products (which alters behaviour).

    1. Hi Stephen- I agree that divesting may be seen as mere virtue signalling, especially at an institution with only minor financial investments in fossil fuels. However, I do think it is of symbolic significance for helping us reframe the kind of society and economy we need, persuading more of us that the transition from carbon matters. I also think that the students’ activism on campus provided them an opportunity to experiment with the possibility of exercising meaningful agency as change-makers in the wider world after graduating.

      I’m also excited that the university has reduced its carbon footprint by 30% through Enviro-Mark’s CEMARS programme (although the university has not communicated this achievement widely). Again, it may be a drop in the ocean, but it is at least a stept toward the meaningful change we urgently need. With regards to this reframing endeavour, variously pursued through degrowth economics for instance, I was similarly excited to read of 238 academics signing a petition to the EU and its member states to replace growth as a priority with human and ecological wellbeing. See:
      And, I would also support the carbon tax you endorse.

      1. Maybe the activism on campus lead to actual meaningful and effective actions elsewhere but no-one has put evidence of that up yet. It’s a hope. It’s also possible that enactment of virtue signalling initiatives REDUCES demand for effective actions as people feel they “gave at the door”. So by FEELING they are doing their bit when in fact they are not, we crowd out things that do work. There is evidence for this. After all, effective actions are usually costly and ineffective ones often less so – no surprise which people pick when faced with actually having to reach into their pockets.
        And as you know I am an advocate of growth. You want to save the planet? Make people in the poor parts of the world rich via growth. It’s not actually rich countries that are dumping their plastic in the ocean. Unless we deal with the big 5 out of SE Asia, our ban on plastic bags is literally a drop on the ocean.
        No-one is suggesting GDP is the be all and end all measure of human well-being. It certainly is not. But abandoning income growth as a useful thing to do makes no sense.

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