In March 2014, U of T president Meric Gertler received a petition from Toronto350 (a student group) requesting that U of T fully divest from fossil fuel companies within the next five years and immediately stop investing new money in the industry. After approximately a year and eight months, the debate will finally be coming to an end this December.
Gertler created a Presidential Advisory Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels, which consists of 10 faculty members, alumni, and staff representatives from environmental engineering, finance, law, political science, economics, philosophy, administration, and earth sciences. The committee is responsible for reviewing the petition and its accompanying brief, and will also recommend an appropriate response to the call for divestment and consider U of T’s potential responses to the challenges posed by climate change.
Once the committee presents its recommendation by December, it will be up to Gertler to make the final decision on divestment.
Additionally, from June to September 2015, Gertler welcomed submissions from the U of T community, asking for reasoning behind supporting or opposing the petition, in whole or in part. Gertler also encouraged the community to generate ideas and proposals for actions U of T may consider in response to the challenges of climate change.
To understand the business and sustainability ethics behind fossil fuel divestment, The Medium spoke to professor Pierre Desrochers from the Department of Geography and current graduate students from the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program. The MScSM program integrates knowledge from management, and social and natural sciences to address sustainability issues and pursue management careers in sustainability-related divisions and organizations.
While the class of seven graduate students wholeheartedly agree that fossil fuels bring about negative social and environmental impact, and that the world needs to control global warming as soon as possible, Desrochers split the class into two opposing teams to debate the issue and to develop the most time- and cost-effective way to respond to the growing problem.
Anureet Kaur, Arielle Navarra, Shaniece Mitchell, and Fatima Fasih argued that U of T’s divestment would be an effective wake-up call for companies by threatening them into recognizing social and political consequences of fossil fuels investment and forcing them into thinking of innovative energy options.
Navarra argued that divestment would push companies into developing innovative energy resources. “[U of T] is a leading factor in pushing climate change research, and we think it’s hypocritical for them to invest so much money [in fossil fuels] in order for the university to thrive,” she says. “If that money was divested into not just clean technology, but into research to improve and if [U of T] is the first in Canada to do this, they would set a precedent for the rest of Canadian universities to make that change, as well as put pressure on the industry and government.”
Fasih reasoned, “In terms of the financial implementations, one of the things the university has to do for its shareholder is to maximize profit but also think of the long-term. Because oil prices have been so unstable and volatile, they should think of divesting into something that’s more stable.”
In forming their argument, the pro-divestment grad students turned to academic journals and publications. “In [one study], the return of investment in fossil fuels is just 0.5 percent higher […] so we think the margin is not significant,” said Kaur, arguing that divestment won’t affect the university’s finances. Additionally, she emphasized that U of T only retains 7 percent of its funding from industries, making this form of financial income insignificant in the greater picture.
The pro-divestment grads believe that the university could direct the money invested in fossil fuels towards controlling climate change, such as the energy-efficient retrofits found in old buildings downtown (which also have a return in investment).
Additionally, Kaur pointed out that “if the university makes the decision to support [the Syrian] refugees, it’s contradictory when they are investing [in fossil fuels]”.
The opposing team (Saif Kamil, Cristian Altobelli, and Bipin Tiwari) argued that divestment is not an effective way of forcing companies into thinking of innovative energy options. Instead, they believed that collaboration between the university and companies is the key.
Tiwari argued that divestment would add on extra costs that would take a toll on U of T’s operational expenses, including limiting its intake of more students and campus expansion, which are both high long-term costs.
Additionally, Altobelli said that “Cornell, Harvard, and Dalhousie [opted] to engage with companies to develop alternatives to fossil fuels rather than just pulling out and hoping for change to occur. They emphasize innovation and investing in students for building a sustainable future”.
In their research, the anti-divestment grads encountered one possible solution, which was to push for more and stricter government action. They believed that nothing is guaranteed with divestment, but pushing for government action would force companies to obey or be subject to fines.
In terms of politics, Tiwari asked, what would university divestment do to stop privately-owned oil companies in the Middle East? How would those companies be stopped so that they are part of the effort in controlling climate change?
Desrochers himself submitted a memo to the university’s consultation voicing his opinion that divestment is not a good idea.
“They completely ignore the benefits of carbon fuels. They are not perfect but they have contributed a lot of good things, for which there are currently no substitutes,” said Desrochers. “And I believe that if the divestment movement is serious in their claim that there are substitutes, they wouldn’t call for divestment but for boycotting.”
He argued that divestment is purely a symbolic gesture, since U of T doesn’t have enough stocks to make a real difference in the market. According to Desrochers, U of T’s fossil fuel stocks are not as significant as other universities, such as Harvard. Desrochers added, “The way I view things is that the job of the university is to create new knowledge and create people to come up with alternatives, and this is what we should be focusing on, [rather] than making a meaningless gesture that will impact the university’s endowment.”