Students gather at a fossil fuel divestment march in front of Simcoe Hall earlier this year. COURTESY MILAN ILNYCKYJ.

A recent report by Corporate Knights, an organization that promotes “clean capitalism,” claims that the University of Toronto has lost over $550 million CAD by not divesting from fossil fuel firms over the course of the past three years.

“U of T is an institution that is designed to prepare students for the future and they should not be investing in companies whose business plans [are] built around making that future unliveable,” said Sam Harrison communication coordinator at UofT350, a group of climate justice organizers at U of T.

The application Corporate Knights used to analyse this loss is called the decarbonizer tool and allows a user to take an investment portfolio and retroactively divest it to create an alternate portfolio.

Corporate Knights ran a side-by-side comparison of U of T’s portfolio, one showing its current state, and another in which the university had divested from fossil fuels. The results stated that, for the past three years, the university has been consistently losing money in its fossil fuel investments.

Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of news & media relations at U of T, said that the issues of divestment and investment are mutually exclusive and are being wrongfully conflated. “Decisions about whether or not the university divest[s] from a company or an industry, those are not investments, so they can’t be motivated by a company or an industry’s profitability,” Blackburn-Evans said. “Divestment is focussed on essentially the university’s social responsibility in an investor, and then its response to activities or behaviours that may cause social injuries.”

When asked about the particular investments made, Blackburn-Evans said, “what [Corporate Knights is] basically saying is the university has lost a lot of money. I can’t confirm or deny that the university lost that money. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s about an investment decision right? It’s not about a divestment decision, so they’re making an argument that if the university had made a different investment decision perhaps they wouldn’t have lost this money?”

Harrison countered, “It is possible that [U of T] could divest from fossil fuels and then not use the money for anything else. That is highly unlikely. [We’re asking for the university to] divest from the 200 fossil fuel companies [and] if they do that they’re going to have a bunch of new money that they’re going to want to invest in something else.”

Harrison claimed that, while methodology used in producing these results may vary, the conclusion is clear that by investing in climate change the university is losing large sums of money that could have been used elsewhere.

Although he declined to speculate on the upcoming committee decision on whether or not to divest from fossil fuel firms, Harrison did note that if U of T went ahead with divestment, it would be a “brave” decision. “A lot of universities have not been divesting largely for reasons that are not credible and have been debunked,” he said.

Many other universities in North America have also been facing the same issues that arise from this heated debate. Universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have decided not to divest and instead have agreed to spend around $300 million USD in the course of the next five years to research climate change and technology, developing “low-carbon energy centres” to produce sustainable energy. Universities in Canada such as Dalhousie and McGill have decided to be active as shareholders in the company.

Harrison, however, did not believe in the feasibility of what he called “shareholder activism.” He emphasized a need for U of T to go against the grain of Canadian universities and take a step outside the comfort zone of academic research.

So far, this issue has taken root among both students and faculty members. Lila Asher, another member of UofT350, organized a march in late October. “It’s upsetting that U of T still trusts fossil fuel companies with its money. These companies are irresponsible: they ignore climate science and can’t even turn a profit for student programs at this university,” said Asher in a press release.

On a global scale, climate change has become an increasingly popular issue. From November 30 to December 11, 2015,  delegates to the Paris Climate Change Conference will discuss the urgency of climate change and the devastation that it has caused in multiple parts of the world, as well as further damage that could be done. Due to the alarming nature of climate change, a new global agreement is on the table to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for which the commitments will expire in 2020.

Harrison claimed that this should be reason enough to encourage fossil fuel divestment. “Academics aren’t usually big fans of big symbolic statements, but in lead up to one of the most important UN climate conferences ever there’s never been a more important time to have big symbolic statements.”

With files from Iris Robin

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