Divestment Debate Comes to a Head at Board of Governors Meeting Tomorrow

It’s Sunday, it’s minus 18 degrees before the wind chill, but at least the sun is shining. Despite that, over 50 people are standing at the corner of Gordon Street and College Avenue demanding that the University of Guelph divest the $38 million portion of its endowment that’s invested in fossil fuel companies like Exxon-Mobil and Suncor.

The Board of Governors will make a final decision at its meeting on Wednesday, but what that final decision will be is still a matter of debate.

In their report, the Ad-Hoc Committee on Special Action Requests lay out several recommendations, but none of them fulfill Fossil Free Guelph’s request for the University to commit to complete divestment over five years.

“They’re diverting, they’re deflecting, they’re delaying the question and drawing it out, and I don’t know if it’s deliberate or not, but it definitely seems to be,” said Spencer McGregor after the demonstration. McGregor is a spokesperson for Fossil Free Guelph, a student group at the U of G that has led the call for divestment since 2015.

Instead of full divestment though, the Ad-Hoc Committee is proposing five recommendations including the establishment of a baseline carbon footprint and ESG (environment, social and governance) score, to develop 10 year goals with a reporting process, and to “lead in advancing change in the university sector.”

The other two recommendations are to target a 10 per cent decrease in the endowment’s carbon footprint over the next two years, and to set targets for improving the endowment’s ESG rating over the same period.

“Recognizing the need for immediate action, the Ad-Hoc Committee recommends that the University target a ten per cent reduction in the carbon footprint of the endowment investment portfolio by December 31, 2020,” reads the report. “This will result in a carbon footprint reduction of approximately 17 tonnes of CO2 per million dollars invested.”

“These are very broad, very vague, and it leaves a lot of room for them to not carry through,” said McGregor flatly about the recommendations.

Critics of the recommendations will note that the University has previously argued against divestment because, at least according to the 2017 annual report, only nine per cent of the total $380 million U of G endowment is invested in fossil fuels. The University has previously argued that their $38 million represents a “drop in the bucket”, in terms of the $5 trillion global marketplace for fossil fuels.

McGregor says it’s a simple matter though, “The University of Guelph claims to be a green school, but green schools don’t invest in fossil fuels.”

He also notes that there’s a familiar ring to the recommendations made by the Ad-Hoc Committee.

“There was very similar report published four years ago called the Working Group on Responsible Investing report,” noted McGregor. “Most of those recommendations are re-used, they’re coming forward again four years later, and our question is why where those not implemented in the first place over those four years? Why are you recommending them again now, and why are you ignoring our demand for divestment?”

That report from July 2015 outlined seven recommendations. Among them was that the Board of Governors come up with a comprehensive “Statement of Investment Beliefs”, to come up with definitions for “Responsible Investing” going forward, to review the endowment portfolio for ESG principles, and to work with other Canadian universities to increase awareness of responsible investing practices.

McGregor thinks that the university administration is waiting things out in the hope that the calls for divestment will leave when the people that lead Fossil Free Guelph graduate.

“The fact is we’re all students and we have a four-year turnover usually,” he said. “Once we’re gone, those are the most experienced people, so we’re trying to retrain people as we go and get more people into the movement, but if the dedicated people all leave in one go, the people that remain will all be trying to do the same thing again and again, and reaching the same roadblocks.”

In 2016, the Central Student Association asked about divestment in a referendum question, and found that 72 per cent of those that voted supported the initiative.

Even the Ad-Hoc Committee’s own investigations found majority support for divestment. Of 134 respondents interviewed including  students, faculty, staff, alumni and the general public, “the majority of respondents favoured divestment,” and  “most often cited the social injury caused by fossil fuel use, conflict with the university’s mission, and the desire for the university to demonstrate environmental leadership as their reasons for supporting divestment” among the reasons.

So far, Université Laval in Quebec City is the only post-secondary institution to move forward with divestment here in Canada. The University of Toronto’s own advisory committee recommended divestment, but U of T President Meric Gertler refused to consider it.

The Board of Governors will meet at the Arboretum Centre at 1 pm on Wednesday. Fossil Free Guelph will be holding a rally in Branion Plaza at noon and lead a student procession to the Arboretum prior to the meeting.

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