By Calvin Beauchesne
As part of what is now an international movement, the student environmental organization Sustainable Trent has been working hard over the past year to urge Trent University to divest from the fossil fuel industry – that is, to pull out its financial investments in fossil fuel companies.
Like every other university in Canada, Trent University builds its endowment and pension funds through investments in the stock market, of which a significant portion is invested in the energy sector – mainly oil and gas.
The logic behind the movement is that if it is wrong to wreck the climate, it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.
Universities and colleges have been the main target for this campaign due to the fact that they are institutions dedicated to young people, and young people are the ones who will ultimately be around for the increasingly worsening effects of climate change – from rising sea levels to prolonged drought to stronger hurricanes. For this reason, campaigners believe schools should be held to higher moral standards.
Schools have also been targeted because of their commitments to environmental stewardship on their campuses. Supporters of the fossil fuel divestment movement say it is hypocritical for schools to invest in LEED standard buildings and efficient lighting systems while at the same time investing in companies that are involved in coal mining or extraction of the tar sands in Alberta.
So far no universities or colleges in Canada have divested from fossil fuels. In the US there have been 12 schools that have divested or are in the process of divestment; all of which are small colleges.
Trent does not directly invest in fossil fuel companies. Like most universities, it invests in a series of pooled funds, which include Canadian, US and International equities. Trent University invests its endowment and pension funds in a number of TD Emerald Pooled Funds. Companies in these funds include Enbridge, TransCanada, Suncor, and Imperial Oil, in addition to a host of large oil, coal, and gas companies. Sustainable Trent is asking for the Board of Governors to pull out its investments in pooled funds that contain fossil fuels, and to reinvest in socially and environmentally responsible companies or pooled funds that do not contain fossil fuels.
Sustainable Trent’s fossil fuel divestment proposal has strong support from the student body. In the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) 2013 Spring elections 76% of students that voted said ‘Yes’ to a referendum question asking “Do you support the University in divesting from fossil fuels, as laid out in the Fossil Fuel Divestment referendum?”
A petition urging Trent to divest from fossil fuels has garnered over 500 signatures. Students, alumni, professors, community members and others have signed the petition.
Sustainable Trent has hosted a number of events on campus ranging from film screenings to speaker tours to formal debates in order to help raise awareness and build support from the Trent community for fossil fuel divestment.
Sustainable Trent members Julian Tennent-Riddell and Calvin Beauchesne presented their fossil fuel divestment proposal to the Board of Governors during their open session meeting on January 31st, 2014. Using research and analysis, they made the case that divestment would be democratic, financially prudent, ethically responsible, aligned with Trent’s mission statement, and beneficial for Trent’s reputation.
In response to the proposal, the Board of Governors made it clear that they appreciate the hard work and research that went in to the presentation. They have informed Sustainable Trent that they will likely make a formal decision on the proposal at their general meeting in June in order to have enough time to study and consider the proposal more thoroughly.
Sustainable Trent member Julian Tennent-Riddell is currently working on a Community-Based Education Project looking into the specifics of Trent’s investments in fossil fuel companies, and how the school can divest from those companies in a way that is in line with the Board’s fiduciary duties.
The Trent Central Student Association voted unanimously to endorse Sustainable Trent’s fossil fuel divestment proposal at their general meeting on February 9th. The Trent Part-Time Student Association and CUPE Local 3908 have also officially endorsed divestment. Sustainable Trent is currently seeking support from the unions representing faculty and staff who are the beneficiaries of the University’s pension fund: the Trent University Faculty Association and OPSEU Local 365.
Sustainable Trent student organizers are greatly encouraged by the progress they have made on divestment from fossil fuels thus far, and are witnessing a build in momentum and support as the Board of Governor’s decision draws nearer.