Sustainable Trent’s year-long divestment campaign reached its zenith with a presentation to Trent’s Board of Governors, asking them to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
Julian Tennent-Riddell and Calvin Beauchesne made the pitch to the board at the January 31 meeting.
“Essentially what we are asking for is for Trent University to immediately freeze any new investments in fossil fuel companies and to divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds … within five years” Beauchesne told the board.
If Trent were to begin the divestment process they would be the first school in Canada to do so, joining eight other institutions in the United States.
The presentation was structured around five major points in support of divestment.
They argued that divestment is democratic, is financially prudent, is ethically responsible, fits Trent’s mission statement, and is good for Trent’s reputation.
“Divestment is democratic, and we say that [because of] the results of a student referendum last year [in which students voted 76% in favour of divestment], and also the support we’ve got from a petition that we started [garnering 526 signatures]” said Beauchesne.
The petition was signed by Trent students, alumni, staff, and local residents.
The democratic portion of the presentation was the shortest. The longest concerned the financial prudence of divestment.
According to Tennent-Riddell, “divestment is a practical choice” and “it can be done without sacrificing returns.”
In order to avoid a global temperature increase of two degrees Celsius, 80% of fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground, according to the statistics presented. The value of these reserves is $27 trillion, which sets up a $20 trillion “Carbon Bubble.”
“[This] dwarfs the housing bubble that caused the 2008 recession,” said Tennent-Riddell.
He concluded, “What this financial analysis shows is that fossil fuels, in the long-term, are actually quite risky investments.”
The way to avoid those risks is to “divest from that industry … early and proactively.”
Tennent-Riddell acknowledged that divestment is a long-term solution, but pointed towards the Endowment Fund and Pension Funds, both designed to operate in perpetuity and currently sustained by fossil fuel investments, as reasons why long-term thinking is beneficial.
In the last sub-point regarding financial sustainability, Beauchesne and Tennent-Riddell argued that fossil fuel investments have been in decline over the past three years, using statistics from Bloomberg.com and the Global Mining Index Fund.
Moving forward, the focus switched to the ethical implications of investing in fossil fuel companies.
“By investing in fossil fuels … we are associated with all the things that the industry is” said Beauchesne.
Climate change was the first concern addressed. “[Fossil fuel companies] business model relies on burning five times more carbon than what scientists say is safe to burn” Beauchesne told the board.
“Institutions like Trent should be held to a higher moral standard on this because we are dedicated to young people and … we are the ones who will have to live with the effects of it.”
He also brought up environmental destruction being carried out by these companies in the form of tar sands, coal mining, and fracking.
Further, he pointed out the dismal human rights record of these companies, some of which have histories of “expropriating communities … to make room for mining,” and “polluting communities’ drinking water and not getting any fines for it.”
Finally, they were critical of these companies’ massive political influence through lobby groups such as Ethical Oil, sponsored by Enbridge, and massive political contributions, calling it a “corruption of our democracy.”
“Our fourth point is … that Trent’s core values support divestment” said Tennent-Riddell.
He quoted Trent’s Mission Statement, approved by the board June 24, 2010, which states over the next five years Trent’s mission is to “Foster sustainability, in its environmental, social and economic dimensions, on our campuses and in all aspects of our work.”
The statement was applauded by Sustainable Trent for demonstrating a holistic understanding of sustainability, and leaving nothing out.
“Given the unsustainable nature of the fossil fuel industry, [these] investments are essentially incompatible with this mission statement” argued Tennent-Riddell.
Relatedly, the last point of the presentation focused on how divestment would be good for Trent’s reputation as an environmentally and socially progressive school.
“It would be a bold move to take,” admitted Beauchesne, “but it would [add] to that image that we’re known for.”
Following these points, the presentation focused on how to go about divesting.
“The first step is to make the commitment to divest within five years,” said Tennent-Riddell.
A five year timeline was chosen due to the complicated nature of the divestment process.
The proposal submitted to the board included two options for how to proceed.
The first is simply to filter out the top 200 fossil fuel companies from Trent’s investment pool. The second is to reinvest fossil fuel funds into renewable energy companies.
They also recommended the board undertake an Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Risk Assessment.
“What that does is look at the issues beyond the investments … such as the Carbon Bubble issue” said Tennent-Riddell.
Tennent-Riddell underscored that the presentation was not meant to imply that the board should do all of the work.
He mentioned a Trent Centre for Community Based Education project that he was working on, to be completed in early March, that looks at Trent’s current investment situation, understanding the board’s obligations under those investments, and figuring out solutions “in accordance with the board’s fiduciary duties and the university’s commitments.”
Few board members had questions or comments following the presentation.
However, Robin Dines complimented the reasoning, composition, and research of the presentation and stated “I for one will give it serious consideration.”
The Chair of the Board, B. Anne Wright, echoed Dines’ comments and promised that the board would consider the proposal and discuss it further, making a decision as soon as at the next meeting on March 21.
Board Member Andrew Stewart questioned why the focus was on companies that produce fossil fuels and not those that use them, such as the automotive industry.
Beauchesne answered that fossil fuel companies are targeted for being the foremost preventers of progress on fighting climate change.
“The automobile industry has a history of climate change denial, but they are also developing hybrids, electric vehicles, things like that. So right now … the culprit is the fossil fuel industry.”
Stewart also asked about how this movement was progressing at other institutions and if there were any models for the board to go off of.
Tennent-Riddell pointed towards similar campaigns occurring at institutions like McGill and Dalhousie, and eight American colleges that have either divested or begun divesting from the fossil fuel industry.
You can watch the full video of the presentation here: