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McMaster president looks to speed up fossil-fuel divestment

McMaster University’s president is pushing the school’s board of governors to divest from fossil fuels “as soon as possible,” saying students and staff are pushing for more action to address climate change.

Student groups say the school's divestment timelines aren't fast enough

McMaster University's president is asking the board of governors to speed up fossil fuel divestment. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

McMaster University's president is pushing the school's board of governors to divest from fossil fuels "as soon as possible," saying the school's students and staff are pushing for more action to address climate change. 

But while they're "heartened" by the statement, student groups who have been pushing for divestment say more concrete steps are needed — faster — to make the sentiment a reality.

In an article posted to the school's website March 4, called "McMaster's commitment to divestment," president David Farrar said the university community has shown it is passionate about issues including climate research, clean energy promotion and reducing the institution's carbon footprint.

"Today I asked the university's board of governors to work with us to put in place a strategy to divest fossil fuels from our institutional investment pool as soon as possible… The board of governors holds responsibility for the university's investment pool and the divestment strategy will need to align with the board's fiscal obligations.

"While working through a divestment strategy will take time, as a university we need to face the challenges of the climate crisis and play our part in addressing this in every way we can."

In recent years, environmental organizations have increasingly called on large organizations and individuals to divest their fossil fuel investments as a way to reduce support for a sector that causes significant carbon emissions. Several Canadian universities have already announced plans to divest from fossil fuels, such as the University of Guelph, the University of British Columbia, Université Laval and Concordia University. However, the actual process of divestment at many of those institutions is slow going.

Fossil fuel companies 2.1 per cent of Mac's portfolio

McMaster's recent announcement is just the latest step in an "aggressive" move to "decarbonize" that began in 2018, says the school's chief financial officer Deidre Henne. The school is already on a path to get out of fossil fuel investing by 2050, but Farrar is now asking the board of governors to speed up that timeline to further address the impending climate catastrophe. 

She says McMaster owns 12 different "investment manager products" — pooled funds or those that are unique to the institution — and each must be examined to determine whether removing fossil fuels can be negotiated, or whether the school should replace the product with a fossil-fuel-free alternative. 

"If I have to replace them, (that) can take six months to a year. I have 12 of these," she said. "That's why it's not as fast as the more outspoken, idealistic individuals would like it to be."

Henne says the school has reduced its investments in fossil fuels by 53 per cent since 2018. She says fossil fuel companies made up 4.5 per cent of the school's investment portfolio in 2018, while today they are 2.1 per cent, or $22 million. The school also has 24 per cent of its investments in clean technology. 

"I would like to have an accelerated plan to decarbonize by 2040, but to be fair, I have to present a bona fide plan I can deliver," said Henne, adding she hopes to "be there by the fall."

Students want no further fossil-fuel investment

For students fighting for divestment, these timelines are too slow. A coalition of 13 sustainability-focused clubs, under the banner of the McMaster Climate Strike Team, has sent a letter to Farrar demanding a "commitment to formalize no further fossil fuel investments with the long-term goal of complete divestment," according to the group.

Adeola Egbeyemi, a coordinator of McMaster Divest, said last Thursday that she's "heartened" by Farrar's message to the board of governors, but her group would like to see the school pursue a five-year timeline for divestment. 

"We think McMaster's... investment policies should be updated to formalize and bind their divestment announcement," she said. "Another thing Mac Divest and the Climate Strike Team would like to see is that students, faculty and administration are included in these discussions (about how to invest)."

The group is hosting a Zoom-based event on Friday at 3 p.m., part of the global day of action affiliated with Greta Thunberg's Fridays for Future movement. Interested parties can register on Eventbrite.

Co-organizer Grace Kuang told CBC she is participating as a way to use her privilege as a Canadian to fight for climate justice globally, starting on her own campus. 

"Everyone tells you to change your light bulbs, eat more plant-based (food) and drive less," she said in an email. "What they don't tell you is that 20 companies are responsible for one-third of carbon emissions! Lifestyle changes can be impactful but system change allows everybody to be a sustainable citizen. That starts with holding fossil fuel companies accountable by divesting."

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