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Professors respond to Professor Robinson’s defence of U of T climate policy

Letters to the editor re: “How U of T is focusing investments on a climate-secure future”
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COURTESY OF THE PROFESSORS
COURTESY OF THE PROFESSORS

On March 15, The Varsity published an op-ed titled “How U of T is focusing investments on a climate-secure future” by Professor John Robinson at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and at the School of the Environment, who also serves as the presidential advisor on the environment, climate change, and sustainability for the University of Toronto. Below are responses to Robinson’s op-ed from three other U of T professors. 

Matthew Hoffmann: We can have sustainable investment while we divest

Robinson touts the University of Toronto’s leadership on climate action. Robinson’s celebration centres on the university’s turn to ESG-based investment strategies and participation in enlightened investor groups like the U of T-led “Investing to Address Climate Change” charter. 

This investment strategy includes goals to reduce the carbon intensity of its investments, and the administration claims that ESG-based strategy will reduce emissions “more than three times greater than the effect of immediate divestment from fossil fuel companies alone.” The university administration is also clearly proud of how it is taking on the climate crisis through revitalizing the campus building environment. 

To be clear, it is a good thing that the university administration wants to be active on the climate crisis. That is to be encouraged. But let’s not confuse what they are currently doing with climate leadership. 

Some of these measures are long overdue. Adopting an ESG-oriented investment strategy would have been visionary leadership in 2005. It is closer to embarrassing than to leadership that it took the university until 2016 to adopt this strategy. 

Similarly, working toward a lower carbon campus was innovative leadership back in 2011 when Robinson helped the University of British Columbia realize the construction of “North America’s Greenest Building.” Today, the kind of actions outlined in the op-ed should be taken for granted as the baseline, not a source of self-congratulation from the administration. 

Some of these measures are misguided. Intensity targets for investments aim to lower the ratio of carbon emissions to dollars invested, not necessarily to reduce carbon emissions. Is that what we want? 

Further, no one that is serious about the climate crisis is advocating for divestment alone. Working toward a fossil-fuel-free endowment and pension fund should be part of a comprehensive approach to investing that is aligned with a just transition to a low-carbon future. Why be so adamant that the University of Toronto avoid fossil fuel divestment when lowering the carbon footprint of the portfolios is its stated goal?

The climate crisis will only continue to intensify and so must our actions. Our understanding of leadership must certainly evolve beyond what counted 10–15 years ago. 

Robinson’s op-ed seems to imply that if those in the U of T community who are passionate about the climate crisis and critical of the administration just knew better about what the administration was doing, they’d celebrate rather than criticize it. But perhaps the critics do not suffer from an information deficit; perhaps, they suffer from a leadership deficit. 

We can do more. We can do better. We can divest and pursue a just transition. Robinson should consider updating his understanding of what counts as leadership, and as the presidential advisor on the environment, climate change, and sustainability, he should advise U of T President Meric Gertler to do so as well.

Matthew Hoffmann is a professor of political science at UTSC, as well as the co-director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.

Paul Downes: U of T deserves more than propaganda 

Robinson, the presidential advisor on the environment, climate change, and sustainability, makes a number of misleading claims about the university’s response to the climate crisis. “The university’s target,” wrote Robinson, “is a 40 per cent reduction in the carbon intensity of its long-term investment portfolios by 2030.” 

But he tellingly fails to explain what “carbon intensity” means or why U of T has adopted this way of measuring its carbon footprint. Carbon intensity does not measure the absolute carbon dioxide emissions associated with the companies that U of T invests in; it measures carbon dioxide emissions per million dollars invested. This is a very important distinction.

At a Governing Council meeting on December 17, which Robinson and I attended, President Gertler acknowledged that using the metric of carbon intensity to measure the portfolio’s carbon footprint could give a very misleading picture of the extent of carbon emissions reductions. 

Consequently, Gertler ordered the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM) to include a measure of absolute emissions reductions associated with the university’s investment portfolio. This absolute emissions metric reveals a 50 per cent smaller reduction in the portfolio’s carbon footprint over the past two years — a 10 per cent reduction as opposed to the 21.5 per cent reduction claimed by the UTAM in its carbon footprint report.

Nevertheless, Robinson seems to continue to champion the intensity metric because it gives an inflated sense of U of T’s goals and achievements. Given that “intensity” is a measure of emissions per million dollars invested, and given that the dollar size of the university’s portfolio grows annually, it is quite possible for emissions associated with the portfolio to grow even as intensity drops. 

Considering his position as presidential advisor, Robinson should know this, and yet he peddles this greenwashing metric to students while telling them that “we as a university” share students’ “passion and commitment to change.”

As if this were not bad enough, the article goes on to declare that instead of divesting from the fossil fuel industry, the university’s asset managers can achieve better success in combatting the global climate disaster by “[looking] at the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) sources of risk in the university’s portfolios.” 

Who ever said that this was an either/or option? Why on earth would anyone who claims to be committed to addressing the climate crisis not consider divestment alongside other efforts to reduce emissions? And what exactly was meant by “looking at” ESG risks in the portfolio? Is the serious suggestion here that the University of Toronto is addressing the climate crisis by having the UTAM “look” at things?

Robinson addressed his remarks to “student leaders,” but his primary goal seemed to be to echo the party line emanating from President Gertler and the asset managers at the UTAM. Students who have given their time and attention to this enormously important issue are tired of being fed corporate nonsense such as this. 

Local sustainability initiatives are all very well and good, and they certainly make for good public relations. But if Robinson really cared about the climate crisis, he would be combining his work on sustainability at U of T with a powerful call for President Gertler to announce a timetable for complete divestment from the fossil fuel industry.  

Paul Downes is a professor in the Department of English at UTSG. He is also a member of Divestment and Beyond, a coalition of faculty, students, and staff that is dedicated to fossil fuel divestment and aims to achieve climate justice at the University of Toronto by encouraging the U of T administration and working with the U of T community. He is also an elected member of the Academic Board.

Gavin Smith: Listen to the voices within our community

Robinson makes several claims, which, taken together, amount to an apology for the investment practices of the UTAM in respect of “a climate-secure future.” I will comment on just two. 

As a member of the university, I object to Robinson’s use of the expressions “We as a university” and “The university believes.” The expressions are used in an article that refers to “student leaders” and “the call… from within our community” who, he notes, scrutinize and critique the university’s actions, speaking as though he is the university community. 

This apparently small stylistic problem would not be worth highlighting were it not for the fact that President Gertler and that vague group, “the administration,” frequently use the same expression and often when speaking to an audience beyond the campus. 

The ‘passionate advocates’ and ‘voices within our community’ to which Robinson refers are indeed critical of the UTAM’s refusal to divest from fossil fuel companies, but he employs sleight of hand when he writes, “ultimately, we can achieve a carbon footprint reduction that is more than three times greater than the effect of immediate divestment from fossil fuel companies alone.” Nobody among his adversaries is proposing divestment from fossil fuels alone. 

A misconception held by many is that investments like UTAM’s in fossil fuels are declining. But, in fact, overall investments in fossil fuels companies are on an upward trend. Indeed the finance provided by banks in 2020 was higher than in 2016 or 2017. Canadian banks, along with their US counterparts, account for almost half of those investments. One of them is Toronto Dominion, whose asset management company is among the managers used by the UTAM. 

It is disappointing to read an article by a professor at this university that resembles more an infomercial for a product than an objective piece of writing. 

Gavin Smith is a professor emeritus from the Department of Anthropology. He is also a member of Divestment and Beyond, a coalition of faculty, students, and staff that is dedicated to fossil fuel divestment and aims to achieve climate justice at the University of Toronto by encouraging the U of T administration and working with the U of T community.

Editor’s note (March 29): This article has been updated to remove a sentence in Downes’ letter that, due to prior changes in the editing process, no longer suited the structure of the submission. This article has also been updated to correct Hoffmann’s title.