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Open letter: Divestment is great news, but it’s still not evidence-based climate action

We should be setting more ambitious goals than those laid out by President Gertler
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The University of Toronto took a big step forward in addressing the climate crisis last week with the announcement that it will divest its endowment portfolio from fossil fuel investments, and work toward a “climate positive” campus by 2050. 

These are important steps, and I fully applaud the students, staff, and faculty who have been pushing for this for many years. U of T President Meric Gertler is correct to say that when large institutions such as U of T take these steps, it encourages others to follow.

However, in many ways, the announcement is disappointing, both in tone and substance. The president likes to talk about U of T as a ‘leader’ and, indeed, used that language in last week’s announcement. But the university could have fully divested from fossil fuel companies six years ago when its own expert advisory panel suggested targeted divestment. Six years ago, we could have led the way; now, we are a laggard

Every delay means more carbon emissions, which contribute to further warming and further damage from climate impacts. Our students represent the generation who will have to live with the consequences of the climate crisis for most of their lives. At the very least, we owe them an apology for ignoring them and our own expert advice for so long.

The announcement also fails to acknowledge the well-documented role that the fossil fuel industry has played in deliberately undermining the work of climate scientists, including those at U of T, and in spreading misinformation to confuse the public and delay action on the climate crisis. In making fossil fuel investments up to now, the university has been violating its own policy by investing in firms that cause social injury. Quite simply, we have been funding a world-class educational institution through investments that directly undermine the very mission of universities.

In some ways, the president’s announcement itself adds to that misinformation. For example, it continues to present reduction of “the carbon footprint of [the university’s] long-term investment portfolios” as though it were talking about actual reductions in absolute emissions, with the distinction buried in a footnote. During a time when the investment portfolio has grown considerably, a 40 per cent reduction in emissions per dollar invested will provide only a very modest reduction of our carbon footprint. President Gertler himself has acknowledged that this language is misleading in his remarks to the Governing Council last year, yet he continues to use it.

The casual reader may think we are on track with the drastic emissions reductions pathways described in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. We are not. What’s more, the announcement does not once mention the scientific evidence that guides emissions reduction targets set forth by the IPCC.

Our decarbonization targets need to be meaningful. Universities in particular are in a unique position here. We have the expertise to build robust evidence-based policy on carbon emissions, but we’re not using it.

The closest the president’s announcement comes to citing this evidence is when he invokes the idea of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This may be a reference to emissions pathways analyzed in the IPCC Working Group 1 report released this past August, and perhaps the special report on the 1.5 degrees Celsius target, published in 2018. But “net zero by 2050” is the shallowest possible reading of those reports and abjectly fails to engage with what those reports actually say.

The IPCC reports clearly show that climate change is irreversible, at least on the timescale of human lifetimes. They also show that carbon emissions are cumulative: every additional tonne of emissions contributes to further warming, and the planet does not cool down again after we reach net zero.

So, there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ threshold for climate change. We’re already seeing devastating impacts around the world from a warming of 1.1 degrees Celsius — so far — over preindustrial global average temperatures. Every fraction of a degree of further warming will exacerbate these impacts, killing millions of people and displacing many more, through floods, heat waves, wildfires, and a rise in sea levels.

The idea of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 has been widely touted in the media. The pathways to achieve that net zero are usually presented as recommendations from the IPCC. But the IPCC does not make any such recommendation — that is not its remit. It merely assesses the science, and analyzes the consequences of potential future policy choices. Therefore, it is a major misreading to say the IPCC calls for this goal.

Similarly, the oft-touted targets of keeping warming below two degrees Celsius or 1.5 degrees Celsius are not IPCC recommendations either. They are political targets, adopted by the United Nations, as a result of a series of compromises between what politicians think is feasible and what scientists argue is the bare minimum to prevent catastrophic damage. The IPCC merely reports on what the science has to say about such targets and the emissions pathways needed to achieve them.

In analyzing these pathways, it is clear that achieving global net zero by 2050 will be necessary to keep the world below these temperature thresholds. But it is not sufficient. The IPCC reports make it clear that it is not the date that we achieve net zero but the total cumulative emissions along the way that will determine the temperature rise. For this reason, early steep reductions in the next few years are far more important than what happens around 2050.

For example, the IPCC’s 2018 Special Report said that pathways that will keep us below 1.5 degrees Celsius would require emissions to decline by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030. That requires immediate reductions of over seven per cent each year. It is the shape of the emissions curve over the next decade that will decide our fate, not the timing of us crossing the zero line.

It’s also incorrect to translate a goal of global net zero as equivalent to individual net zero targets by countries and institutions. Global net zero would mean that any remaining carbon emissions from human activities have to be offset by drawing down carbon from the atmosphere, largely via technologies that have not yet been demonstrated to work at sufficient scale.

The one drawdown strategy that clearly does work at scale — much-needed mass tree planting — will mostly just reverse the damage from past and ongoing deforestation. Tree planting is not now, nor will it ever be an adequate solution to our failure to curb emissions from fossil fuels. A close reading of the IPCC reports shows that emissions pathways which include achieving net zero by mid-century depend on assumptions about carbon removal technologies that are not yet invented.  

By contrast, when a country — or an institution such as U of T — touts a net zero target, they mean that ongoing emissions can be counterbalanced by emissions reductions by other countries or other institutions, often by buying and trading emissions credits or investing in emissions reduction programs elsewhere. But this is not a zero-sum game. The goal is not to reduce emissions; it is to eliminate them.

Quite simply, you cannot reach global net zero using accounting tricks that merely shuffle around where in the world the emissions occur. If you buy a carbon offset, you’re merely paying for something we should be doing anyway — it cannot and should not be treated as a permit to keep polluting. ‘Net zero’ isn’t sufficient at the institutional level. We need actual zero.

We know that many countries and institutions will struggle to decarbonize because they don’t have enough funding to invest in alternatives or they lack the social and technological capital to proceed quickly. We also know that richer nations — and especially richer individuals — are responsible for the vast majority of past and current emissions. For these reasons, richer nations have a moral obligation to move much faster and set much more ambitious targets than what’s considered ‘average.’

Finally, there’s a strong argument that investment decisions should be at the leading edge of climate policy. We have to pay for the transition to a net zero world, and the lag between investment and new carbon-positive infrastructure takes years to decades. Waiting until 2050 to reach net zero in our investment portfolio is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Today, a bold investment strategy based on evidence from the IPCC would seek to make at least 7.6 per cent emissions reductions every year, starting immediately.

In addressing the climate crisis, universities have a particularly important role to play. Universities can take bolder steps and try out unproven strategies while studying the benefits and impacts of their actions so that others can repeat their successes. 

Plus, we should be preparing our students for a discontinuous future — one where past assumptions about future careers are likely to be wrong. That means reviewing every single program of study across the university to ensure it equips our students with the knowledge and skills they need to face this new world.

So the largest university in one of the richest countries on the planet should be setting goals that are vastly more ambitious than those laid out by President Gertler. The university’s goals must be properly supported by the evidence laid out in the IPCC reports, as an example for other institutions to follow. At the very least, the university should set targets that are far in advance of those announced by the City of Toronto — which already aims for net zero emissions in new buildings by 2030 — and the federal government — which is committing to emissions 40–45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

We should be a living laboratory, experimenting with early, deep emissions cuts within the next few years, reporting on what works and what doesn’t. If we don’t lead the way, it’s hard to see who else can.


Steve Easterbrook, Director, School of the Environment; Professor, Department of Computer Science

Alissa Trotz, Director, Women and Gender Studies Institute; Professor, Caribbean Studies Program

Gavin Smith, Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology

Chris Matzner, Professor, David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics

Deborah Cowen, Professor, Department of Geography and Planning

Marcin Pęski, Professor, Department of Economics

Matthew Hoffmann, Professor, Department of Political Science, UTSC

Paul Downes, Professor, Department of English

Paul Hamel, Professor, Faculty of Medicine

Scott Prudham, Professor, Department of Geography and Planning, School of the Environment

Tenley Conway, Professor, Department of Geography, Geomatics and Environment, UTM

Jan Mahrt-Smith, Associate Professor, Rotman School of Management, School of the Environment

Liat Margolis, Associate Professor, Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design

Nicole Klenk, Associate Professor, Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences, UTSC

Norman Farb, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, UTM

Michael Classens, Assistant Professor, School of the Environment

Nicolas Grisouard, Assistant Professor, Department of Physics

Milan Ilnyckyj, PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science

Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, PhD Student, Department of Anthropology

Melanie Seabrook, MSc Candidate, Dalla Lana School of Public Health

Aliénor Rougeot, Undergraduate Alum, Economics and Public Policy

Leila Tjiang, Undergraduate Student, Environmental Biology and Geography

Léo Jourdan, Undergraduate Student, Computer Science and Mathematics

Rivka Goetz, Undergraduate Student, Critical Studies in Equity and Solidarity