Students attend a UofT350 divestment protest. CC Flickr by Milan Ilnyckyj.

The possibility of targeted divestment from fossil fuels will hang in the balance until March 31, the date when University of Toronto president Meric Gertler will decide whether or not to accept the recommendations of the ad-hoc committee on fossil fuel divestment. Members of UofT350, an organization devoted to mitigating climate change impacts, met with Gertler on February 1 and confirmed the deadline.

Indigenous rights

Lila Asher, UofT350 outreach chair, explained that the meeting was intended to address three issues: the timeline for the divestment decision; the interpretation of the committee’s criteria, and the addition of a criterion for divesting from companies that violate the rights of Indigenous peoples.

“Our goals were to encourage him to divest, push for the decision to be released this semester, get him to consider our input on the criteria, and agree to work on a criteria based around Indigenous rights,” said Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, UofT350 campaign lead.

“Indigenous rights were clearly addressed in our brief on divestment and in a presentation we gave to the committee, and so we were disappointed when there was no mention of this in the committee’s recommendation,” she explained. “The committee acknowledged the social injury caused to people worldwide from the direct impacts of climate change; however, the committee failed to acknowledge the social injury caused by extraction and pollution, which disproportionately impacts Indigenous people.”

At the meeting, Gertler agreed to bring the topic of Indigenous rights to the newly-struck Truth and Reconciliation Commission committee at U of T. “[Gertler] agreed to ask the U of T committee that is currently forming to discuss the implications of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission if they will think about a divestment criteria,” said Asher.

The timeline

Both Asher and Harvey-Sanchez believe that the meeting was positive. “Getting to this point has been a long time coming,” said Harvey-Sanchez.

Harvey-Sanchez stated that she was “generally pleased” with the outcome of the meeting. According to Harvey-Sanchez, Gertler was receptive to their concerns and he recognized the importance of U of T taking meaningful action on climate change.

Harvey-Sanchez added that although Gertler did not commit to divestment, he “seemed sympathetic to the idea.”  She added that UofT350 is happy with a guaranteed response by the end of March.

According to Asher, in addition to the March 31 deadline, Gertler committed to receiving input from UofT350 in the form of a report. This report is set to be delivered to him by February 25.

Committee recommendations

The main recommendations from the fossil fuel divestment committee include evaluating whether the actions of a fossil fuel company disregard the “1.5 degree threshold.”

The 1.5 degree threshold refers to any company whose actions contribute to a rise in the planet’s temperature by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The committee recommended that U of T come up with a method by which to determine which companies are at fault for a ride in global temperature.

Additionally, the committee emphasized that companies which “derive more than 10 per cent of their revenue from non-conventional or aggressive extraction,” should be considered for divestment.

The committee has left the definition of “non-conventional or aggressive extraction” to the university.

The second criterion focuses on firms ‘that knowingly disseminate disinformation concerning climate change science or firms that deliberately distort science or public policy more generally in an effort to thwart or delay changes in behaviour or regulation’.

The report listed ConocoPhilips Co., ExxonMobile Corp., Peabody Energy Corporation, Arch Coal Inc., Alpha Natural Resources LLC, Cloud Peak Energy, and Westmoreland Coal Company as examples of companies that meet the criteria listed above.

Campaign for fossil fuel divestment

The battle for fossil fuel divestment first began in March 2014, when the divestment campaign delivered a petition to the administration, asking for the university to “fully divest from direct investments in fossil fuel companies within five years and not make any new investments in the industry.”

The Presidential Advisory Committee on Fossil Fuel Divestment reviewed the petition. One year later, the committee released a report recommending ”immediate and targeted divestment from fossil fuel companies.”

Currently U of T has invested roughly $32.4 million into fossil fuel companies, the majority of which is in pooled funds along with a small number of direct holdings.

The petition asked for divestment only from the university’s direct holdings.

“There is no straightforward way to determine exactly how much the university may invest in fossil fuel companies,” explained Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of news & media relations at U of T. “The University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM), which manages investments on behalf of the University, identifies various investment strategies that are then carried out by fund managers. The majority of those strategies are complex and, as a consequence, are implemented largely through pooled investment funds.”

There are no current plans to schedule another meeting between UofT350 and the administration unless prompted by the university. Both Asher and Harvey-Sanchez maintain that they plan to ensure that Gertler keeps his promise of a decision by the promised deadline.

“UofT350 maintains that divestment is the right choice ethically and financially and is an important aspect of climate leadership for any respectable University, and we hope that President Gertler will fully agree with us by his deadline,” said Asher.

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