Nova Scotia

Dalhousie University senate suggests path away from fossil fuel investments

A senate committee suggests Dalhousie University has an obligation to take a leadership role in affecting climate change. That means taking a closer look at where the university invests its money.

Fossil fuel sector puts an average of $1 million a year into research at Dalhousie

Dalhousie University's senate suggests the school adopt an ethical investment strategy to help address climate change. (CBC)

A new report from Dalhousie University's senate recommends the school create a formal policy on ethical investments to address climate change. 

The report was put together by an ad hoc senate committee examining the idea that Dalhousie stop investing in fossil fuels. 

"Moving our economy in the direction, especially the energy economy in a direction that becomes more and more environmentally benign is phenomenally important," said Keith Taylor, the co-chair of the committee. 

"It's universities where the research and the thinking is going to occur that moves us that way." 

In 2014, Dalhousie's board of governors voted against divesting the university's holdings in fossil fuel companies, a decision strongly opposed by some student groups. 

The board of governors is in charge of the university's finances while the senate presides over the school's academics. 

Fossil fuels finance research 

In its report, the senate committee said "Dalhousie has an obligation to take a leadership role in affecting climate change, which includes evaluating the corporate practices of the companies it chooses to invest in to determine if they coincide with Dalhousie's own ethical principles." 

However, the fossil fuel sector contributes big bucks to Dal. The report states that on average the sector puts $1 million per year into research at the university. 

Partly for this reason the committee suggested a "nuanced" approach to ethical investing. 

It suggested several guidelines for investing, including: supporting companies working to reduce their use of fossil fuels, have recognized environmental best practices, and take part in public reporting. 

The committee also suggested avoiding companies that deny climate change and oppose global co-operation on climate mitigation.

Senate has no power to make changes

The senate committee, however, has no power to change how the university invests its money. Such decisions lie with Dalhousie University's board of governors. 

The senate accepted the report at a meeting Monday.

It also put together a working group it hopes will consult with the board of governors to suggest companies the university should and should not invest in, said Taylor. 

The group would be made up of five senators and Taylor hopes a few members of the board of governors as well.

Small step forward

Simon Greenland-Smith, with the group Divest Dal, wants the university to stop investing in the world's top 200 fossil fuel companies. He said the working group is a step in the right direction. 

"By not addressing the problems right now, we're not just passing on those problems we're making them worse. So what we want is divestment," said Greenland-Smith. 

"That is a contributing factor to how we get on a road to basically stopping burning fossil fuels for our energy source and moving on to something renewable."

He said Divest Dal will be to monitor the senate and board of governors as the working group is formed.     

The board of governors has to meet to decide if it will take part. 

Recommendations will be reviewed

The recommendations of the senate committee will be reviewed by the board of governors, according to Brian Leadbetter, the director of communications for Dalhousie University.

"The university does believe in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we understand and agree with the goals of those supporting divestment, but institutionally we do differ on the best way to achieve those goals," he said. 

Leadbetter said the university works with its fund managers who "respect environmental, social and governance investment principles."

"The board of governors outlined in November 2014 that we believe that the university will have more influence with regard to climate change as an engaged investor then we would through a one-time decision to divest holdings in carbon companies," he said.   

Leadbetter said in the past five years the university has invested heavily in its own campus to become more environmentally sustainable. He said due to that work the university's greenhouse gas emissions have been cut by 20 per cent over that time. 

With files from Information Morning