The University of Toronto has announced a Committee on the Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability amid calls to divest from fossil fuel by labour unions and student group Toronto350.org.

According to John Robinson, the committee was formed as a result of the decision of U of T’s president, Meric Gertler, to not partially divest from fossil fuels last year, but instead search for alternative sustainability initiatives. The group aims to focus on implementing initiatives that emphasize sustainability through current work by the committee.

In February of this year, several labour union presidents, including Ryan Culpepper of CUPE3902 and Colleen Burke of USW1998, penned an open letter to president Gertler speaking against the university’s investment in fossil fuels.

“We forcefully object to our pensions and tuition fees being used to support an industry with a track record of ignoring First Nations treaty rights, contributing to global warming, and destroying our natural environment. We implore you to reverse your decision regarding divestment. Our university should be investing in clean and sustainable technologies of the future that will benefit society, not destructive industries of the past that seriously jeopardize future life on this planet,” read the letter.

The Medium reached out to the authors of the letter, including Culpepper, Burke, Wasyl Sydorenko the president of CUPE 1230, and Mala Kashyap the president of APUS, regarding the new sustainability committee, but did not receive a response as of press time.

In Gertler’s report back in March 2016, “Beyond Divestment: Taking Decisive Action on Climate Change,” he acknowledged the request for U of T to divest from fossil fuels and the university’s response to the demand.

“On March 6, 2014, I was presented with a petition from the U of T student group Toronto350.org calling on the University of Toronto to divest fully from fossil-fuel companies within the next five years and to stop making new investments in the industry immediately. The petition was structured specifically to address the University’s Policy on Social and Political Issues With Respect to University Divestment,” the report read.

“Under the terms of that Policy, a presidential Advisory Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels, whose membership was approved by the Executive Committee of the University’s Governing Council, was struck in November of 2014 with a mandate to review the Petition and accompanying Brief and consider the University’s response to the call for divestment.”

The Advisory Committee reviewed the policy in light of the petition from Toronto350.org and determined that a full divestment from fossil fuels would be “unprincipled and inappropriate”.

Gertler’s report continued to read, “In considering the request in the Petition, the Committee rejected the idea of blanket divestment from fossil-fuel producing firms. It argues that many members of this industry engage in activities that ‘offer society indispensable benefits that currently cannot reasonably be gained in any other way’”.

The Advisory Committee recommended to only leave investments that show “blatant disregard” for environmental practices.

As a result of the recommendation, the Committee on the Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability was formed to create more sustainability policies and projects and will be chaired by Munk School of Global Affairs professor, John Robinson.

“U of T has huge strengths in sustainability. There is a ton of people already teaching it and studying it and doing it operationally, but they’re not connected. They don’t necessarily know about each other, they’re off in their own disciplines, perhaps in a course doing sustainability,” Robinson stated in an interview with The Medium.  “What we’re doing as a committee is identifying that.”

Robinson intends to concentrate on student engagement through sustainability projects for course credit, or through internships, if granted funding. Included in these are plans to have students involved in initiatives off-campus, working with public, private, and civic sector partners.

Some of the projects include establishing green roofs, learning about waste behaviour, urban agriculture, and installing water bottle refill station mapping.

Implementing sustainability pathways through student curriculums is also being discussed.

“It used to be enough for universities just to teach and do research, and I think the social contract is changing, and we have to take a bigger role in addressing society’s problems. So, that’s the context in which I see the work of the committee,” said Robinson.

According to Robinson, U of T’s decision to remain an investor in fossil fuels has not yet impacted decisions by potential partners to collaborate with the university.

Robinson also explained that Dr. Shashi Kant, the director of the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program, will be hosting workshops in the spring at UTM to discuss the concept of campus living labs, which will increase student engagement in sustainability efforts. The dates for these workshops are yet to be announced.

Plans are currently underway to incorporate sustainability into curriculum at the department of Arts and Science and the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the St. George campus.