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If reconciliation and the climate crisis are to matter, U of T must divest from fossil fuels

U of T’s investments render its global leadership on the environment questionable
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Students protesting the university's refusal to divest in 2016.MILAN ILNYCKYJ.CC FLICKR
Students protesting the university's refusal to divest in 2016.MILAN ILNYCKYJ.CC FLICKR

U of T holds a leading role in environmental sustainability practices. It has presented a number of initiatives which place students on the forefront of addressing the climate crisis.

The initiatives use knowledge and resources provided by the university to create a network that promotes sustainability practices and tackles climate issues globally.

However, some of U of T’s actions, most notably its investments in fossil fuel companies, are cause for calling this supposed leadership role into question.

This past July, President Meric Gertler attended a summit in Paris along with 47 other universities, who collectively comprise the U7+ Alliance. During the summit, the alliance voted unanimously to adopt six principles, ranging from efforts to “train and nurture responsible and active citizens who will contribute to society, from the local to the global level,” to “solve complex global issues through interdisciplinary research and learning.”

With its notable involvement in global summits and conferences, as well as the commitments made in the President’s Advisory Committee on the Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainability’s 2019 annual report, it is clear that U of T is a global leader when it comes to environmental and sustainability efforts.

However, in many ways U of T is acting in conflict with its own principles and values in how it is using its resources. When our money is put into industries that directly contribute to the same problems we are looking to combat, it creates a disconnect between promises made by the U of T bureaucracies and the actual actions implemented by them.

U of T promises to “address environmental issues and challenges, including sustainability and climate change,” and yet, according to Toronto350, a campaign group which calls on the university to divest from fossil fuel industries, it is heavily invested in fossil fuel companies, with “a significant portion of our ~$1.5 billion endowment devoted to this unsustainable industry.”

While U of T promises to “share [our] best practices with each other and other institutions around the world,” Toronto350 shows that we are invested in stock holdings in the “200 fossil fuel companies around the world with the largest reserves of coal, oil, and gas.”

U of T promises to “promote inclusion and opportunity while fostering ‘evidence-based public debate’ to combat societal polarization,” yet it is investing in the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on sacred Indigenous land in Hawaii. There, dozens of protesters, including 33 Native Hawaiian elders, have been arrested and continue to face confrontation by the police.

Promises like the ones mentioned above — which comprise half of the core principles the U7+ Alliance voted to adopt — can be seen as great strides toward environmental stewardship and sustainability. But investments in fossil fuel companies and disregard for Indigenous land rights betrays our promises toward these goals.

As an institution that holds a marked role in the global academic community with regard to environmental sustainability, U of T must do more to take responsibility and divest from these unsustainable and unethical companies.

True leadership would mean holding ourselves accountable to the promises we have made as a collective alliance with other institutions around the world. We rally other countries to partake in these initiatives with us, yet at the same time we hold investments that do not reflect our supposed values and principles. By prioritizing profits made from such investments, we pose a threat to the very cause we claim to fight for.

While so many of our environmental initiatives are progressive, U of T cannot continue to present itself as a leader while hypocritically investing in harmful industries. Rather than continuing to invest in fossil fuels, U of T should shift its investments into the renewable energy sector. This would not only better reflect our status as a leading university in sustainability practices, but might influence other universities to adopt clean energy initiatives. U of T must sincerely commit itself to the sustainability movement to be a true global leader.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Hafsa Ahmed is a third-year Political Science student at UTM.