Only three years ago the plan seemed ambitious, pie in the sky thinking: convince the world’s investors to stop bankrolling the fossil-fuel industry. Now that movement has become so successful, there’s no telling where it will stop, and Canada’s universities and colleges are becoming the latest battleground.
Data compiled by US-based Arabella Advisors show that, to date, more than 400 institutions and 2,000 individuals across 43 countries have pledged to divest $2.6 trillion from fossil fuels.
Prominently featured in the movement’s growth was a 2014 commitment to divest the Rockefeller Brothers Fund endowment. Other major players followed in quick succession. Bank of America, for instance, withdrew its support for coal mining and pledged to invest $125 billion by 2025 through financing for low-carbon business.
The divestment idea was the brainchild of American author and environmentalist Bill McKibben. In 2012 McKibben’s global environment group, 350.org, launched a divestment campaign to take on the fossil fuel industry. The movement spread to U.S. campuses with student clubs allied with 350.org challenging their university and college administrators to take concrete action to confront the climate crisis by removing fossil fuel companies from their endowment portfolios.
The movement gained steam as the moral arguments of the student divestment campaigns converged with an increasing recognition of climate and financial risks associated with investment in fossil fuels.
More and more, faith-based organizations, municipal and state governments, NGOs, foundations, pension funds and health care institutions are among a diverse group, globally, looking to align their investment practices with their values and signed on as adopters of divestment.
“If there is a divestment movement today, it is thanks to the student movement and the work of 350.org,” said Hyewon Kong, vice-president and portfolio manager at Toronto-based AGF Investments Inc. “These people were the first to talk about this issue and draw attention to it in the media and among investors.”
Research and innovation addressing climate change are influencing decisions to divest. “There’s now a financial risk to investing in fossil fuels,” Kong points out, as fossil fuels already on companies’ balance sheets may become stranded assets in a carbon constrained world.
A report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative in 2013 found that up to 60–80 per cent of energy reserves held by publicly listed companies are technically unburnable if global warming is to stay under 2°C.
Increasingly, financial analyses from unexpected quarters are including this risk when considering fossil fuel valuation and risk to portfolios. Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, who is also chairman of the Financial Stability Board that coordinates regulation across the Group of 20 economies (G20), warned investors in his latest report this fall about the increasingly risky nature of investments in the oil and gas sector.
The fossil fuel divestment movement also continues to spread on campuses globally. According to Arabella Advisors, “40 educational institutions with $130 billion in assets have committed to divest.” Unity College in Maine led the way in 2012 as first institution of higher learning in the US to divest. Two years later Stanford pledged to divest from coal mining companies. And this year in New York, Syracuse University announced it was formalizing a commitment to “not invest directly in fossil fuels.”
In Canada, divestment campaigns have met with varying degrees of success. Last year, Concordia University became the first university in the country to take steps towards divesting from fossil fuels when it announced plans to sell off $5 million of its $130 million endowment fund. Divest Concordia activists denounced the move as a public-relations exercise, given the small amount of money involved.
“Universities should lead the way and put their money elsewhere than in fossil fuels,” said Kiki Wood, national director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition. “I’m very hopeful that things will start to happen. Even the largest institutions have begun to join the movement and universities are now at least conscious that divesting is a real solution in the fight against climate change.”
The boards of governors at McGill and Dalhousie University are under strong pressure to divest. Active campaigns are similarly underway at the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the University of Toronto.
From its headquarters at the University of Saskatchewan, an initiative called the Sustainability and Education Policy Network has looked at 33 Canadian universities and colleges where Fossil Free Canada is campaigning and has started tallying how much of the schools’ endowments are invested in fossil fuel stocks.
While the details of most university investment portfolios are not made public, the think-tank estimates hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake in Canada.
“We’re now at the stage where governing councils are telling us they understand the need to act,” said Naomi Maina, one of the network’s researchers. “They know they have to divest but there’s a lot of resistance. Some institutions shift the blame to third parties by saying it isn’t the universities themselves that do the investing, not directly.”
At the University of Victoria, academic staff have joined the student movement in urging the administration to divest the $21 million its endowment has in fossil-fuel stocks. Academics are also pushing the administration to dump shares in oil companies like Enbridge and Suncor from the university’s pension fund.
The divestment movement is also shaking things up at universities that receive philanthropic handouts from companies active in the oil, gas and coal sector. At Dalhousie, for instance, students have targeted $600,000 in donations Shell Canada has made to the institution.
At other universities, global warming activists know they are fighting an uphill battle. The president of the University of Calgary, for one, rejected a call to divest $40 million in energy stocks from the institution’s $710 million endowment fund. In an article in the alumni magazine, Elizabeth Cannon emphasized the importance of the energy sector as a major employer of the university’s graduates, as well as the financial support a number of energy companies provide in the way of bursaries, research grants and investments in capital infrastructure.
A CBC investigation last month revealed that Cannon was paid more than $130,000 in 2014 as a director of energy giant Enbridge’s income fund, and holds more than $800,000 of shares in the fund.
“There are more and more business ties now between universities and companies active in the fossil fuel sector, and that no doubt explains why resistance to the divestment movement is so strong in Canada,” Maina said, adding that the federal and provincial governments could enact legislation to force universities to divest.
Still, Kong from AGF says divestment is not the only solution, even if the movement appears to be gaining ground in the financial world.
“Selling your shares is all very well, but you also have to realize that someone else is buying up that stock at a lower price,” she said. “You should also worry about what’s being done with the funds that are divested ... There has to be a transition phase for the fossil fuel industry and other industries in general. The problem has to be addressed in a more holistic way.”