On October 27, 2021, U of T President Meric Gertler announced that the university will fully divest from fossil fuels by 2030. The plan, initially, was to stop investing directly into fossil fuel companies by October 2022 and halt indirect investments by 2030. 

The announcement followed U of T’s initial rejection of divestment in 2016. At the time, Gertler proposed a “firm-by-firm” approach with a more flexible attitude towards divestment, explaining that fossil fuel companies “only account for one-quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the balance produced by other sectors such as transportation, housing and manufacturing.”

According to a U of T spokesperson, the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation’s (UTAM) success in reducing the carbon footprint of long-term investment portfolios influenced the university’s decision to divest. UTAM is an organization that was created in 2000 to keep the university an “accountable, professionally staffed investment management organization.” 

“The divestment commitment will see UTAM completely divested from direct investments in fossil fuel companies by Oct. 27, 2022,” the spokesperson explained. 

UTAM’s most recent annual report, published in 2020, listed a number of responsible investing milestones that the corporation achieved throughout the year and during 2021. These milestones included joining the University Network for Investor Engagement — which helps Canadian universities connect with the global investor movement, quickening the shift to more climate-positive recommendations — and signing the 2021 Global Investor Statement to Governments on the Climate Crisis. The Global Investor Statement was signed by 587 investors representing over $46 trillion USD in assets and urges a global “race-to-the-top” on climate policy, pressuring governments to become involved in climate policy or risk being disregarded for future investing.

According to the UTAM website, the 2020 report “[includes] many significant developments that took place in 2021 that will inform our responsible investing practice now, and for the next decade and beyond.” The 2021 milestones included the October divestment announcement and data for that year.

U of T’s greenhouse gas emissions

“UTAM will achieve net-zero carbon emissions associated with the Endowment by 2050. UTAM is also allocating 10 per cent of the endowment portfolio to sustainable and low-carbon investments by 2025, representing an initial commitment of $400 million,” the U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity

The UTAM report explained that U of T’s absolute emissions of “carbon dioxide equivalent,” a unit used to measure all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, has dropped 21.1 per cent from 2017. Additionally, the report noted that U of T’s carbon footprint had dropped 40.1 per cent since 2017. 

According to UTAM’s 2020 Annual Report, U of T was the first university in the world to join the UN-convened Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance (NZAOA), a member-led initiative of institutional investors who have promised to shift their investment portfolios to accomplish net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. Net-zero refers to the process of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to completely neutralize the amount of GHG created by humans.

NZAOA encourages institutions like U of T to create and achieve targets every five years while progressing toward net-zero. 

Low Carbon plan

In 2019, U of T announced its Low-Carbon Action Plan. In this five-year plan, the university stated that they hope to reduce emissions to 85,223 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents by 2024, a projected decrease of 27.1 per cent compared to 2018 levels. 

According to the plan, U of T will undertake several initiatives to eliminate an average of 44,567 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents a year by 2024. These include the 2019 GHG Campus Retrofits Program, increasing solar energy, distribution improvements, building optimization, lighting retrofits, and capturing GHGs using trees on urban U of T properties.

In the Low-Carbon Action Plan, U of T highlighted their ranking among Canada’s Greenest Employers. This is the ninth time the university has been included in the standings. The university was included because of “the study and application of new sustainable building design, including the new Green Roof Innovation Testing Laboratory.” 

Tri-campus geoexchange programs

Another initiative U of T took on to reach their emission goals is geoexchange. According to the university, the current construction outside of King’s College Circle will result in a geothermal exchange, which is predicted to reduce annual GHG by 15,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents by 2024, according to the university spokesperson.

This would make the King’s College Circle geothermal exchange the single largest contributor to U of T’s annual emission-reduction target of 44,567 tonnes.

Another proposed geoexchange program for UTSG is a “revitalization” of the Robert Street Field. The new program, which is projected to reduce GHG emissions at the Spadina-Sussex Student Residence due to open in 2024, would make Spadina-Sussex “the lowest carbon residence on the St. George campus.”

In 2019, UTSC completed a geoexchange system connected to the Andrews Building. The university also plans to implement geoexchange systems for UTM’s new science building, which is set to be finished in 2023.

What’s next?

In 2018, the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council’s (VUSAC) sustainability commission sent a letter to then-Victoria College President William Robins criticizing the college’s administration for what the VUSAC termed a “lack of action” on environmental sustainability. 

Prior to the 2022 Climate Strike, VUSAC and Climate Justice UofT organized a rally pushing U of T’s federated colleges — Victoria, Trinity, and St. Michael’s Colleges — to divest from fossil fuels. The rally also demanded more transparency from the university about its involvement in fossil fuel-sponsored research and called on U of T to incorporate sustainability frameworks into its academic programs. 

The U of T federated colleges have investment portfolios distinct from the wider university. As such, U of T’s decision to divest from fossil fuels doesn’t extend to Victoria, Trinity, and St. Michael’s. 

Currently, U of T’s three federated colleges have not announced plans to divest from fossil fuels or reduce carbon emissions. Despite this, all three are incorporated into U of T’s purchased utilities and building square metres data in the Low-Carbon Action Plan. 

In an 2021 email to The Varsity, Leap U of T, a student-led activist group working toward climate justice and fossil fuel divestment at U of T, critiqued the university’s divestment commitment. A spokesperson for the group highlighted that the announcement does not apply to U of T’s pension plan, as well as that there is no mention of the social and political implications of divestment that is connected to land disputes or colonial violence. 

“This only further contributes to the evidence that UofT was in little to no way morally incentivized to divest, but rather that divestment was a financially motivated decision that was also convenient for restoring the University’s reputation, having been mired in a variety of scandals over the past year,” Leap U of T claimed.

According to the U of T spokesperson, UTAM is expected to release another Responsible Investing Report in the coming weeks. This report will include updates on U of T’s progress since the university announced its divestment plan a year ago. 

In an email to The Varsity, a university spokesperson confirmed that “the divestment commitment will see UTAM completely divested from direct investments in fossil fuel companies by Oct. 27, 2022.” This follows their promise released on October 27, 2021, to fully divest its endowment portfolio from holdings in fossil fuel companies within 12 months.