U of T’s divestment decision to be announced

University of Toronto President is likely to accept recommendations made by his advisory committee to divest from fossil fuel corporations.

University of Toronto President Meric Gertler will announce the final decision regarding fossil fuel divestment by the end of this month. If he chooses to accept the recommendations proposed by his advisory committee and Toronto350.org, it would put U of T on track to become the first Canadian University to move towards a targeted divestment of fossil fuels.

The Advisory Committee on Fossil Fuels emerged in response to a petition and brief presented by Toronto350.org. Last December, the advisory committee released their recommendations and agreed that U of T should divest.

The advisory committee suggests that a targeted divestment from fossil fuel companies whose actions meet specific criteria should be adopted by the University. They further suggest immediate divestment from companies whose actions have a clear and blatant disregard for the 1.5-degree threshold sought out in the Paris Agreement. The advisory committee identifies ConocoPhillips Co., ExxonMobil Corp., and Peabody Energy Corporation as examples.

Divestment in fossil fuels is the reduction or removal in assets, bonds and investment funds from fossil fuel companies. The committee’s recommendations only address direct investments, and not indirect investment through pooled funds. The Sustainability and Education Policy Network (SEPN) has reported that the University of Toronto has $32.4 million in direct investments in fossil fuel companies from its endowment funds.

Following the advisory committee’s recommendation, Toronto350.org coordinated a community response that commended parts of the committee’s report, recommended adjustments and provided ways to implement divestment. The group met with and presented the Community Response to President Gertler, who said that he would take the community response into consideration prior to his decision.

Around the world, many large institutions have already committed to partial or full divestment from fossil fuels. The University of California, Oxford University and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund are leading examples. Current global commitments to fossil fuel divestment are valued at $3.4 trillion in assets.

While U of T is poised to make the largest fossil fuel divestment in Canadian history, other Canadian institutions have not made the same progress. Apart from Concordia University, which has initiated the process for partial divestment, most student campaigns have met with resistance from university officials. According to Milan Ilnyckyj, lead author of the Toronto350.org’s divestment brief, if President Gertler decides to move forward with divestment, other universities will be more inclined to follow suit.

 “It would have a major legitimizing effect if U of T were to be the first big school to take action by divesting from fossil fuel corporations,”

The advisory committee’s recommendation to align the university’s efforts with the Paris Agreement has been dubbed the “Toronto Principle” by Benjamin Franta in the Harvard Crimson. Franta praises the committee’s recommendation and suggests that the principle should be adopted by other institutions to “give life to the Paris agreement,” and cease actions that are against the agreement. The Toronto Principle, Franta continues, would put pressure on companies to adhere to the agreement, especially if leading institutions such as Harvard University have used their status and power to respond to climate change through divestment.

Ilnyckyj states that many of the counter arguments that the schools have relied on have been weak. UBC recently rejected divestment proposals on the grounds that it was against “the board’s fiduciary obligation to endowment donors.” Through consultation with lawyers and asset management corporations, the U of T advisory committee concluded that in fact, divestment is compatible with fiduciary duty.

“It would have a major legitimizing effect if U of T were to be the first big school to take action by divesting from fossil fuel corporations,” says Ilnyckyj. Toronto350.org’s divestment brief has already aided in the success of campaigns in the United Church of Toronto and the University of Glasgow in the UK.

Ilnyckyj attributes part of the groups’ success to their constant efforts to be reasonable with university officials. He says, “We have been in the position where the office of the president has listened to our arguments and thought about it academically, more than a power exercise or a threat to their leadership.”

For students who are looking to gain momentum for their fossil divestment campaigns, Ilnyckyj advises that campaigners strike a balance of rigorous, well-written and well-researched documentation combined with the activist mindset to motivate students and faculty.

“It’s really important to build connections with other organizations on campus” says Ilnyckyj. “Our campaign was endorsed by faculty associations, undergraduate organizations, graduate organizations and various student clubs.”

Divest U of T is only one of Toronto350’s campaigns around the city. The organization has expanded its divestment campaigns to Ryerson University and the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, while also focussing their efforts to block future pipeline approvals such as the Energy East pipeline.

Editor at The Green Student

Eunize Lao is the current editor of the Green Student. She is a third-year Environment and Business Student at the University of Waterloo and recently completed her co-op term at Alternatives Journal as the Editorial Intern.