Students protesting the university's refusal to divest in 2016. MILAN ILNYCKYJ.CC FLICKR

Meric Gertler attended the inaugural U7+ Summit this July, and affirmed his commitment to addressing climate change, along with the leaders of 48 universities worldwide. The U7+ Alliance aims to confront global problems, including the climate crisis, through the commitments of various universities.

However, over the past few years, U of T’s climate record has been marred with dissent, marked notably by Gertler’s 2016 rejection of divesting from all fossil fuel companies, as recommended by the President’s Advisory Committee on Divestment (PAC). 

Principle 3 of the U7+ Alliance states, “We recognize that our universities have a major role to play in addressing the environmental issues and challenges to sustainability such as climate change, biodiversity and energy transition. This should include leading by example on our own campuses.” As Gertler and U of T continue to voice support for fighting the climate crisis, The Varsity takes a look at what the university has done in recent years.

Background

Leading up to 2015, student activists and a Toronto350.org petition encouraged the university to create a committee that would look into U of T’s financial investments and make recommendations. The PAC specifically recommended that U of T divest from firms that spread misinformation about climate change, derive 10 per cent or more of their revenue from aggressive or non-conventional extraction, or disregard the 1.5 degree warming threshold. 

“We had come up with what we thought was a very reasonable and well-thought-out approach,” said Professor Matthew Hoffmann, who served on the PAC. 

In rejecting the PAC’s suggestions, U of T announced its plans to instead evaluate investments on a “firm-by-firm basis,” using “Environmental, Social, and Governance [ESG] factors.” 

“It’s what everyone should be doing,” said Hoffmann on U of T’s usage of ESG principles. “I don’t think it necessarily goes far enough in terms of a climate crisis.”

Even as campaigns similar to U of T’s have been enacted at universities such as McGill University and the University of British Columbia, the sole postsecondary institution in Canada to commit to divestment is Université Laval.

Where are we now?

On the heels of the rejection of the PAC’s recommendations, President Gertler instituted the President’s Advisory Committee on the Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainability (CECCS). Focusing on sustainability and academic response to climate change, CECCS champions three main concepts: campus as a living lab, university as an agent of change, and curriculum innovation.

The CECCS’ work is in line with Principle 3, Action 1 of the U7+ Alliance, dictating that “all students of our universities will have access to courses related to climate, biodiversity and sustainability.”

However, many feel that this is simply not sufficient. “If, as [the CECCS] argues, U of T needs to be a living lab and an agent of change, then this must go beyond curriculum to the material and energy foundations of the institution,” said Professor Scott Prudham.

As of the 2018 University of Toronto Asset Management (UTAM) Carbon Footprint Report, carbon emissions for the Pension and Endowment portfolios are 13.1 and 12.5 per cent higher than their Reference portfolios, respectively. UTAM directs U of T’s investments, which amounts to almost $10 billion. This measurement is comprised of total emissions and emissions per million dollars USD invested. 

“Our portfolio is higher in carbon emissions than I’d like to see,” said Hoffmann.

“Beyond Divestment,” the document that outlines Gertler’s rejection of the PAC’s recommendations, emphasizes that fossil fuels only contribute to a quarter of carbon emissions, citing this as a limiting factor when considering the possibility of divestment. However, divestment increasingly has a financial logic, as the report agrees that investing in fossil fuels may be riskier in the long-term. 

“If U of T came out with a strong commitment to pursue divestment, it would send signals. After all, financial markets are about information and expectation, and if large institutional investors begin to show aversion to investing in fossil fuel companies, then others may follow suit and suddenly those firms do not look like good investments anymore,” said Prudham.

But the logic of divestment goes beyond financial considerations. “Divestment activists think… this really needs to be about changing the way society thinks, what we invest in,” said Hoffman.

Where are we going?

This debate over what it means to be a university in the face of the climate crisis causes many to still feel as though U of T is not living up to its potential. Divestment remains a priority for student environmental groups such as Leap UofT, who simply are not satisfied with the university’s focus on academic solutions and sustainability.

“This administration has been very good at greenwashing its unwillingness to challenge the corporate power driving the climate crisis under support for sustainability initiatives. Those initiatives are wonderful on their own, but they aren’t a substitute for divestment,” said Leap UofT co-founder Julia DaSilva. In the past two years, Leap UofT has focused their divestment efforts on Victoria College, where the Board of Regents Investment Committee has agreed to look into the possibility of divestment.

“Our aim with these campaigns has been to rebuild the momentum around divestment, and this year, we’re working on ways to direct this momentum back into a cross-campus campaign that will force U of T’s administration out of their confidence that divestment at U of T is dead,” said DaSilva.

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