Professors call on Western University to commit to divesting from fossil fuel industry

A group of 150 professors and other staff at Western University in London, Ont., has written an open letter to the school’s administration calling on it to divest of any assets from the fossil fuel industry.

“We’d really like to see the university join the growing divestment movement by disclosing and divesting its investments in the fossil fuel industry,” said Carol Hunsberger, associate professor in the department of geography and environment. 

The fossil fuel industry is a major contributor to climate change, said Hunsberger.

“Divestment…can send a direct financial signal by withdrawing some funds from that industry,” she said. “It also sends a broader message that the university is not content to profit from business as usual.”

Any institution like Western that has a commitment to sustainability needs to take proportionate action, and that includes exerting whatever financial pressure it can on the fossil fuel industry.– Carol Hunsberger, Associate Professor at Western University

As part of a growing movement, many universities across both Canada and the U.S. have pledged to divest their financial holdings from the fossil fuel industry. The list includes the University of Toronto, Concordia University, and the University of Waterloo.

“It’s quite a long list now,” said Hunsberger.

In February, Western University’s Students’ Council (USC) announced it would no longer invest in companies that “explore, drill, or refine fossil fuels.” In addition, USC said it would redistribute its investment portfolio into fossil-free funds, which now account for 61 per cent of the organization’s portfolio. It committed to doing that by 2025.

Carol Hunsberger is an associate professor in the department of Geography and Environment at Western University. (Submitted by Carol Hunsberger)

Hunsberger applauds the university’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions on campus, pointing to the university’s strategic plan. But it’s not enough, she said.

“Any institution like Western that has a commitment to sustainability needs to take proportionate action, and that includes exerting whatever financial pressure it can on the fossil fuel industry and the financial institutions that support it,” said Hunsberger.

A different approach from Western

Though the university has not committed to divesting entirely from the fossil fuel industry, it has, over time, been tracking how much of its money is invested in the sector.

“As part of Western’s commitment to reduce the university’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45 per cent by 2030 and to achieve net-zero by 2050 or sooner, we are aggressively pursuing the decarbonization of Western’s investment portfolio,” said Lynn Logan, Vice-president of Operations and Finance, in a statement on Tuesday.

Logan said Western’s current direct investments in the fossil fuel sector are just 0.33 per cent of it’s total operating and endowment fund, down 0.10 per cent from the year before.

Lynn Logan is Western’s Vice-President of Operations & Finance. (Western University)

“Active engagement is a key component of our responsible investing approach,” said Logan. “If we divest and another organization acquires that investment, we’ve had no impact. Engaging strategically allows us to achieve greater impact.”

Logan said the university is collaborating with all sectors to set meaningful climate goals. “This is achievable as an active owner and has the greater impact toward achieving a net-zero future,” she said. 

Logan added Western will divest of any fossil fuel company by 2030 if it has not demonstrated “tangible progress toward realistic net-zero pathways, as these investments will not contribute to Western’s long-term goals.”

Hunsberger and her colleagues still want to know how much Western has actually invested in fossil fuels, not just the percentage of the total fund and they’ve filed a request for investment information.

“We’re trying to get that list of companies that the university is invested in to get a clearer picture of where the money is invested and how much of it,” said Hunsberger.

“Also, where research funds and donations may be coming from that could be tied to the fossil fuel industry.”

Hunsberger hopes to present the group’s open letter to the University’s Senate and Board of Governors this spring.

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