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RISK: Canadian universities refuse to completely divest from fossil fuels

Toronto's Trinity-St. Paul's United Church is one of the few Canadian groups to divest

No Canadian university has committed to completely divesting from fossil fuels, although Concordia has promised to make $5 million of its roughly $130 million endowment fossil fuel-free, and several other schools are considering divestment proposals.

For writer and comedian Scott Vrooman, that’s not acceptable, and he’s promised to tear up his degrees from Dalhousie and Queen’s if they don’t change their policies.

“Primarily it’s a moral argument, where if you’re an institution that claims to be working in the public interest, you can’t do that and also be invested in fossil fuels, because torching the climate isn’t in the public interest,” said Vrooman.

The fossil fuel divestment movement, started by environmental group 350.org in November 2012, has started to gain traction abroad but so far failed to take hold in Canada.

Last fall, Dalhousie University rejected calls to divest of fossil fuels, while the University of Calgary pre-emptively said it was not looking at making changes to its investments in the energy industry.

Outside Canada, hundreds of colleges, cities, foundations and religious groups have committed to some degree of divestment of fossil fuels.

Just last week, Oxford University said it will not directly invest any of its $3.3 billion endowment in coal or oilsands, joining the Rockefeller Brothers Fund which late last year committed to phasing out coal and oilsands investments from its roughly $1.1 billion fund.

Toronto’s Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church is one of the few Canadian groups outside of environmental organizations to sign on to the movement.

Jeanne Moffat, a member of the congregation who pushed for divestment, says the decision was about sending a message.

“We don’t have any illusions that taking our small bits of money at Trinity St. Paul’s is going to affect the fossil fuel industry per se,” said Moffat. “But we do know that what’s being affected is a questioning of their social licence to operate as if there’s no tomorrow.”

But even those pushing for climate change action question the effectiveness of the campaign. Bob Walker, vice-president of NEI Ethical Funds, says it’s better to work with companies to bring about policy changes such as putting a price on carbon.

“We’ve been engaging companies for 15 years, and from our experience you can’t change a company you don’t own,” he said, adding that “once we divest from a company our voice is gone.”

He said it’s time to create better policies in collaboration with the energy industry aimed at combatting climate change.