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Presidential divestment committee recommends “targeted divestment” from fossil fuels

Report calls for evaluation of companies’ actions
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The presidential Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels has recommended that the University of Toronto divest from companies that “engage in egregious behaviour and contribute inordinately to social injury.” In a 24-page report released the morning of December 16, the committee specified that the university’s focus should be on companies whose activities disregard international efforts to limit the rise in average global temperatures to less than 1.5-degrees Celsius.

“It is our view that fossil fuels firms engaging in activities that blatantly disregard the 1.5-degree threshold are engaging egregiously in socially injurious behaviour that is irreconcilable with internationally agreed limits to the rise in average global temperatures and thereby greatly increasing the likelihood of catastrophic global consequences,” reads part of the report.

The report comes after students involved with the divestment campaign at U of T presented a 190-page brief to the university in March 2014 urging for divestment from its direct holdings in fossil fuel companies. In response, U of T president Meric Gertler struck an ad-hoc committee in November 2014 to analyze the university’s position. Since that time, U of T students have participated in demonstrations calling for divestment and climate justice both on and off campus.

Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, a second-year environmental studies student at U of T and divestment campaign lead with Toronto350, the local branch of climate justice advocacy group, said that the recommendations represent a positive step towards fulfilling the goal of calling for divestment from all fossil fuels.

“The committee recommendations reinforce the suggestion [at the COP21 climate conference] in Paris that the fossil fuel era is over and investors have to get out now,” said Harvey-Shanchez. “It also recognizes that the fossil fuel industry’s business model contradicts the 1.5ºC target,” she added.

“The divestment committee tackled its mandate with the same intellectual energy and integrity that so distinguishes our academic community and I wish to thank them personally for their efforts on my behalf and on behalf of the entire University of Toronto,” said Gertler of the committee’s work in an interview with U of T News.

The report highlights “firms that derive more than 10 per cent of their revenue from non-conventional or aggressive extraction” as the type of company from which U of T should divest. The committee recommends that U of T initiate an evaluation process to determine whether a fossil fuel firm’s actions abide by the 1.5-degree threshold.

“We leave it to the University to define fully what counts as ‘non-conventional or aggressive extraction,’” the committee said in the report, suggesting that methods such as open-pit mining of natural bitumen in Canada, Arctic extraction or exploration, and thermal coal mining in Canada and the United States, are examples of such extraction.

Although students from the campus divestment campaign hailed the committee’s recommendations as precedent for other educational institutions to follow suit, they said that U of T should also take action for communities harmed by climate change and fossil fuel extraction.

“We do feel that the committee recommendations ignore communities and people who are negatively affected by fossil fuel extraction,” said Harvey-Sanchez, identifying Indigenous communities among those most affected.

“The recommendation fails to acknowledge that fossil fuel companies who violate Indigenous peoples’ right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent commit social injury,” campaign members said in a press release.

“I think now the [U of T] president has to stand on the right side of history and divest from all fossil fuels,” said Harvey-Sanchez.

Bryan Karney, an environmental engineering professor at U of T and member of the committee, told U of T News that the reason behind suggesting a targeted approach to divestment as opposed to a blanket approach was because the committee believes that some fossil fuels still offer invaluable benefits that currently cannot be achieved through other sources.

“The Committee acknowledges that certain activities, though socially injurious, nevertheless offer society indispensable benefits that currently cannot reasonably be gained in any other way,” the report says.

The committee emphasized the role of U of T as an educational institution in contributing to the global effort to combat climate change and that following the recommendations in the report should be an important part of the university’s action. “The Committee respectfully calls upon our academic community to amplify its collective efforts — in climate change-related scholarship, education, innovation, and entrepreneurship — to help meet the overriding social and environmental issue of our time,” the committee said in the report.

The committee also cast mitigating the challenges of climate change as a continuous effort at U of T and an open dialogue on campus. “This process, undoubtedly, will continue and intensify past the completion and submission of this report; the Committee hopes that some of the recommendations and principles articulated here will help inform that future. Not everyone will agree. The debate will carry on, into the laboratories, common rooms, offices, and ultimately into classrooms and into the curriculum. This is, of course, exactly how it should be.”