U of T students demanding fossil fuel divestment photo by Milan Ilnyckyj CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The University of Toronto will become the largest Canadian university to divest from fossil fuels if the institution moves forward with recommendations proposed by their advisory committee.

In response to a petition and a brief presented by Toronto350, University of Toronto President Meric Gertler called for an ad hoc advisory committee to review the petition and brief and provide recommendations.

The petition — released in March of this year — urged U of T to “fully divest from direct investments in fossil fuels companies within the next five years and to stop investing new money in the industry.” 

The Advisory Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels recommended in their report that the University divest from “fossil fuels companies whose actions blatantly disregard the international effort to limit the rise in average global temperatures to not more than one and a half degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages.”

The report does however acknowledge, “that certain activities, though socially injurious, nevertheless offer society indispensable benefits that currently cannot reasonably be gained,” and fossil fuel companies that fall under this category will not be the focus of the divestment recommendations. Therefore, the committee has asked the University to create a criterion that will be used to evaluate the activities of fossil fuel companies to determine if their actions are in blatant disregard to the said threshold.

The committee further recommends U of T halt new investments in fossil fuel companies and advise their investment managers to divest immediately from fossil fuels that are displaying “blatant disregard” for the 1.5-degree threshold. They identified ConocoPhilipps Co. and ExxonMobil, as clear examples of companies whose actions meet the description as mentioned. ConocoPhilipps Co. is listed for their involvement in Arctic extraction activities while ExxonMobil, has made headlines through the discovery that they withheld information about the implications of fossil fuels on the environment.

The advisory committee believes that if the divestment of fossil fuels is implemented, the University will be doing their part for climate change mitigation and adaptation and expect that this decision will have other Canadian universities and institutions will also soon follow suit.

Although divestment campaigns have grown in recent years at many Canadian post-secondary campuses, none have announced a full commitment. 

The University of Waterloo’s Environment Student Endowment Fund (WESEF) board of directors has recently approved a motion to divest from fossil fuels.  The motion will be sent to the university’s board of governor’s finance and investment committee for review. The motion is still in the early stages and it is unknown when the financial committees will announce their decision.

Divest McGill, has been campaigning for the divestment from fossil fuels since 2012. In 2013, McGill University’s Board of Governors rejected their petition stating that there was “insufficient evidence of social injury.” As of earlier this month, the group has received support from the McGill’s Arts faculty and divestment discussion are back on the table. The decision will be ultimately left to the Board of the Governors, who are anticipated to announce a decision next year. 

Some divestment campaigns have not received the same success, with Trent University and Dalhousie University rejecting similar motions in the past year.

In May, the board of Governors at Trent University decided that divestment from fossil fuels would not be the best approach for the institution and instead opted to invest 10 percent of their endowment fund in socially responsible investment options “predicted upon the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment (UN PRI).” This decision has received criticism from an campus student group Sustainable Trent, citing their disappointment but promising to continue to advocate for divestment.

Dalhousie University rejected a proposal to divest from fossil fuels last November. After submissions and presentations from Divest Dal, a group committed to reducing GHG emissions, the Investment Committee decided against the motion. The committee stated that they “did not believe divestment would advance the goal of reduced carbon usage, a conclusion embraced by the Board through its vote.”

In other parts of the world, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, many large universities have already committed to full or partial divestment from fossil fuels. This list includes Syracuse University, University of California, University of HawaiiUniversity of Glasgow and Oxford University.

A full list of divestment commitments can be found at gofossilfree.org

Eunize Lao is the Editorial Intern and a third-year Environment and Business student at the University of Waterloo. 

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