Trent BoG not doing enough for fossil fuel divestment

divestment signs

Last week, an editorial was published in Arthur shining a positive light on the Trent Board of Governors for not saying ‘no’ to Sustainable Trent’s fossil fuel divestment proposal. I’d like to examine some of the assumptions outlined in this report, and outline why not saying ‘no’ simply isn’t good enough.

The editorial mentioned that some of the Board of Governors members have attended the Responsible Investment Association Conference and the Ontario Universities Pension Symposium, both in May 2014.

And according to an online statement in June 2014, the Board has begun a “serious examination of the issue.” Another online statement regarding the rally on January 30 organized by Sustainable Trent and OPIRG said, “key issues concerning administration of the faculty pension plan are being addressed by the Board, and a recommendation on divestment will be considered once those decisions are in place.”

While attending conferences is an encouraging step, this has not led to the production of any progress reports or updates to Sustainable Trent in regards to considering divestment. In fact, there has not really been any communication between the Board and Sustainable Trent at all. If the Board is talking about divestment, they certainly aren’t keeping us or the students informed on what is being discussed.

The Board of Governors also has not taken any of the steps we recommended in the report submitted to them last year by Sustainable Trent, including: conducting an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) risk assessment of the endowment and pension funds; hiring an Investment Manager with experience in ESG investing; integrating Mission Based investing in Trent University’s investment policies; and starting to investigate funds to invest in what can be passively managed and exclude fossil fuel companies.

The Board of Governors has not said ‘no’ to Sustainable Trent’s fossil fuel divestment proposal, but they have not said ‘yes’ either.

While we understand divestment is a complicated process, our proposal is to “immediately freeze any new investment in fossil-fuel companies, and to divest from direct ownership and from any commingled funds that include fossil-fuel public equities and corporate bonds within five years.”

Five years provides more than enough time for Trent to divest in a way that is aligned with it’s fiduciary duty. Therefore, the demand we are making, for the Board of Governors to vote in favor of Sustainable Trent’s fossil fuel divestment at their next meeting in March, is a completely reasonable one.

Trent has an opportunity to be a leader in the divestment movement by becoming the first university in Canada to commit to fully divest. With the exception of Concordia University, that recently set aside $5 million of their $130 million dollar endowment for fossil fuel-free investments, no school in Canada has committed to taking the first steps to fully divest from fossil fuels. Schools in the US have reported increased enrollment and donations after publicly announcing they will divest from fossil fuels.

If Trent is a leader in fossil fuel divestment, and becomes the first Canadian school to divest, it will have an extremely positive effect on the reputation of the university. It will also set the stage for other, bigger schools like the University of Toronto or Dalhousie to do the same, potentially being the catalyst in triggering a snowball effect with the ability to massively impact the reign of the fossil fuel industry and the tar sands in Canada.

Let’s remind ourselves what the purpose of the fossil fuel divestment campaign is. Divestment aims to delegitimize the social license of the fossil fuel industry by demonstrating that large institutions, like universities, believe it is immoral to profit off of those companies.

If you own fossil fuel stock, you own climate change. Fossil fuel companies have major influence on government through political donations, election campaigns, and television ads in the same way tobacco once did. They have successfully blocked any meaningful action by the Canadian government to significantly reduce carbon emissions to date.
Divestment aims to turn fossil fuel companies into moral pariahs in the hopes that their political stranglehold will be weakened.

This process needs to happen sooner rather than later. The Board’s response to our proposal tells me they assume we have time to spare. This is simply not the case. 2014 was the hottest year on record, and at the end of this year the United Nations Climate Change Conference will take place in Paris, in what will possibly be the most important meeting of world leaders regarding climate change in history.

This meeting may lead to the development of a global legally binding emissions reduction agreement. If the process of eroding the political stranglehold of fossil fuel companies begins before this meeting, it is more likely that a legally binding agreement will be made between countries, an agreement that we so need to combat climate change.

That is why Trent, and universities and colleges across Canada following in our footsteps, need to commit to divestment now. The Board of Governors must vote in favour of Sustainable Trent’s fossil fuel divestment proposal at their next meeting in March. We’re happy the Board has been so open and welcoming to us, but that falls short of what we’re asking for. Good intentions do not equal action.

At the end of the day, history will remember us for being bold and being the first school in Canada to completely divest from fossil fuels. It surely won’t remember us for anything less than that.