University of Toronto joins fossil fuel divestment movement

Meeting student demand on climate, Canada’s top-ranked institution to cut oil companies from C$4 billion endowment by 2030

October 28, 2021
Toronto, Canada - Oct 19, 2017 Petro Canada gas station in the city of Toronto
Source: iStock

The University of Toronto has promised to sell all fossil fuel investments from its C$4 billion (£2.4 billion) endowment by the end of 2030, joining a growing number of elite institutions making the move under student pressure.

Toronto is Canada’s top-ranked university and holds its largest higher education endowment. The university said it would end all direct investments in fossil fuel companies within 12 months, but would need until 2030 to withdraw from various types of pooled investments.

“The growing severity of the climate crisis now demands bold actions that have both substantive and symbolic impact,” Toronto’s president, Meric Gertler, said in a letter to the campus community announcing the move. “The evidence of a climate crisis is now incontrovertible.”

Toronto acted seven weeks after Harvard University, with the world’s largest higher education endowment, promised to remove fossil fuels from its $42 billion (£30 billion) portfolio.

Both are among a series of elite universities that have made such promises, within a variety of definitions and timelines. Climate activists have largely celebrated those decisions as victories for student advocacy and models for divestment actions society-wide, often choosing to accept the need for extended implementation timelines and to limit critiques of specific terms.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said one University of Toronto alumnus, Richard Brooks, now climate finance director at Stand.earth, an environmental activist group with offices in the US and Canada.

After several years of student-led campaigning at Toronto, the university has now committed to “a pretty accelerated timeline for getting out of direct investments in fossil fuels”, Mr Brooks said.

“There’s always more that we want to see” from universities, he said. “But I think we’re definitely in a moment now where it almost seems like the universities are tripping over themselves to move their endowments out of fossil fuels.”

Others applauding Toronto’s move included Bill McKibben, leader of the climate campaign group 350.org, who referenced the university’s sports team nickname in a Twitter post saying: “Go Blues!!”

Along with Harvard and other institutions, Toronto had already been taking steps in recent years to reduce its investment in fossil fuel industries. The most recent annual report of Toronto’s investment management company said that its fossil fuel exposure represented about 1.6 per cent of the overall portfolio, down 37 per cent from 2017 levels.

The fund also promised to put at least 10 per cent of the endowment portfolio into sustainable and low-carbon investments by 2025.

Beyond Harvard and Toronto, other major institutions making divestment pledges include Princeton, Brown, Cornell, Oxford and Cambridge universities. Those with large endowments still facing some protests over the lack or speed of their divestment efforts include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and New York University.

MIT, with a $27 billion endowment, has set out a goal of 2050 for reaching net zero carbon in its portfolio. “The MIT endowment’s primary weapons in the fight against climate change are the resources it provides to help support the activities of MIT’s faculty, staff, and students,” the institution said in a climate strategy plan earlier this year.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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