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Divest Canada Coalition calls for nationwide blanket divestment from fossil fuels at universities

“Situation is far too urgent” for U of T to not take stronger climate approach, say activists
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The Divest Canada Coalition has released an open letter demanding universities completely divest from fossil fuels.MILAN ILNYCK/CC FLICKR
The Divest Canada Coalition has released an open letter demanding universities completely divest from fossil fuels.MILAN ILNYCK/CC FLICKR

On September 8, the Divest Canada Coalition (DCC) released an open letter calling on university and college administrations across Canada to divest from the fossil fuel industry by 2025. Among those that signed the letter are Divestment and Beyond, Leap U of T, and U of T’s School of the Environment.

The letter argues that the Investing to Address Climate Change Charter, which was signed by numerous Canadian universities, including U of T, in June, is insufficient. The charter proposes that universities regularly measure their carbon intensity, and share the progress they have made toward their goals.

However, the DCC letter instead proposed stronger approaches to fighting the climate crisis, and claims that the charter “is not only inadequate, but pretends to address the climate crisis while deflecting responsibility from taking real action.”

U of T’s climate policy, divestment across Canada

Back in March 2016, U of T President Meric Gertler released a response rejecting the Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) on Divestment from Fossil Fuels’ recommendations of targeted divestment that were put forth in the report of his advisory committee, suggesting that U of T instead take a “firm-by-firm” approach. Following this, however, environmental groups at U of T were not content with this decision and are still calling for U of T to divest, with the DCC letter in particular demanding for full divestment from fossil fuel companies.

When The Varsity reached out to the university for comment regarding their climate crisis policies, a spokesperson pointed to the Low-Carbon Action Plan, which was released three years after the rejection of the PAC recommendations. The plan commits the university to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions levels from 1990 by 37 per cent by 2030. Part of this plan includes geothermal fields, such as the one under construction at King’s College Circle.

According to a university spokesperson, U of T is on track to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

The University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation — which manages U of T’s investments — has also pledged to “reduce the carbon footprint of endowment and pension investment portfolios by at least 40 per cent compared to 2017 levels by the end 2030,” the spokesperson wrote.

While U of T has rejected the recommendations of its experts on divestment, other universities have taken a stronger stand. Concordia University became the first university in Canada to start the process of divesting from fossil fuels in 2014, and has now committed to fully divesting by the year 2025. Laval University was the first in Canada to commit to full divestment in 2017.

The University of Guelph has passed a motion to divest, and the Université du Québec à Montréal has stopped investing in fossil fuels. Finally, the University of British Columbia (UBC) has voted to transfer $380 million from part of its endowment to a sustainable fund — although students have demanded more.

U of T faculty, students want more action

Steve Easterbrook, Director of the School of Environment at U of T and a professor at the Department of Computer Science who is researching the applications of computer science and software engineering to the challenge of the climate crisis, wrote to The Varsity about U of T’s lack of action toward the issue.

“To put it bluntly, it is hypocritical for a University to claim to be at the forefront of knowledge production while simultaneously investing in companies that knowingly undermine that mission by spreading disinformation,” Easterbrook wrote.

“It’s now increasingly clear that fossil fuel companies are extremely risky investments, and that by refusing to divest, the University of Toronto is losing money,” wrote Easterbrook. “It’s notable that when the University of California divested, they cited financial risk, rather than climate change as their primary motivation.”

Evelyn Austin, a member and coordinator at environmental group Leap U of T, co-wrote the DCC letter, along with members from UBC, Carleton University, and Western University.

“Leap has been leading the divestment movement on campus since 2017, when [Leap U of T Co-Founder] Julia Da Silva reinitiated calls for divestment on campus after the first campaign had fizzled out after President Gertler’s rejection [of the recommendations],” Austin wrote to The Varsity. “The situation is far too urgent for the gradual phasing-out of this industry,” Austin continued.

A group within the School of Environment called Divestment and Beyond, whose members include staff, faculty, students, and union leaders, has been holding weekly meetings for the past year to develop a strategy for U of T to take a stronger role to fight the climate crisis.

Divestment and Beyond has also drafted a petition, which has been circulating among faculty and staff at U of T and universities across Canada, that criticized the charter released earlier this year and calls for stronger measures against the climate crisis.

Paul Downes, a professor of English and a member of Divestment and Beyond who co-wrote the letter in the petition, wrote to The Varsity, “The University has engaged in a [public relations] campaign to convince people that it is doing its part to address the climate crisis and the various forms of social and economic injustice perpetuated by that crisis.”

Downes thinks the way that the charter measures the impact of investments is misleading. Signatories of the charter are agreeing to measure their carbon intensity and seek to reduce it, but carbon intensity measures emissions per dollar invested, instead of absolute reductions in emissions.

He later claimed that this approach “is both socially and intellectually irresponsible.” Downes thinks that the charter does not share the goals of faculty and staff at U of T, who he believes mostly want universities to decarbonize their investments and take stronger action.

Beyond divestment

Easterbrook thinks that divestment is only part of the solution. While divestment can certainly be effective, Easterbrook wrote that it’s impossible to measure the reduction in carbon footprint from any single divestment decision. Measurable benefits only accrue when strong collective action is taken, he noted.

“We need a plan to identify and eliminate all sources of greenhouse gas emissions from the University of Toronto campuses and the goods and services they consume,” he wrote. “We need to incorporate climate justice into our educational programs, to ensure all our students are adequately prepared for the climate changed world into which they will graduate.”

Austin echoed that sentiment, noting that the movement relies on public pressure toward universities. She wrote that students should “write to administration, [and] get involved with Leap U of T or other progressive groups on campus.” She also added that students can help by being informed and talking about the issue with friends, colleagues, and professors.

Editor’s note (October 6): An incomplete version of this article was previously uploaded incorrectly. The complete version has now been updated. The Varsity regrets the error.