Opinion: Ryerson can and should divest from fossil fuels

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By MJ Wright

As momentum builds in the global divestment movement and institutions worldwide move toward more environmentally responsible policy-making, Ryerson University appears to be lagging. 

In the last year alone we have seen the University of Victoria commit to investing $80 million in sustainable energy initiatives and Rutgers University vow to completely divest from the fossil fuel industry—two institutions among hundreds that have committed to supporting new green initiatives and sustainable energy. Alongside this are other signs that the fossil fuel industry is on its way out in Canada, including the recent cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline.

This could spell disaster for those who work in the energy industry unless wealth is spread to the other energy sectors—such as wind, solar and geothermal—to stimulate growth and job development. Here’s where Ryerson comes in: the university has an opportunity to be a part of the transition to a brighter future for our planet and our global community through divestment, then reallocation of funds. 

Divestment is an investment strategy wherein an institution removes holdings in industries it deems harmful. In the past, divestment has been used successfully to weaken the tobacco industry and in the last decade, there has been a growing divestment movement in environmental activism. Activists are pushing for the movement of money from fossil fuel companies and their chief enablers to green industries.

“This is an option that’s not only environmentally but fiscally responsible”

I became engaged with divestment as an environmental strategy in 2019 and was elected to Ryerson’s Board of Governors for the 2020-21 year on a platform that included working with Ryerson to divest from the fossil fuel industry. In my role, I’ve had discussions advocating for increased institutional sustainability with our executives and Fiera Capital, who manages our endowment fund. But Ryerson has expressed no interest in divesting, instead choosing not to challenge any of Fiera’s investment decisions.

According to the 2020-25 Academic Plan, one of Ryerson’s core values is sustainability. The value extends past a commitment to protecting the environment but also includes political and fiscal responsibility and the development of innovative practices and actions. This is a value congruent with divestment. The world is already transitioning away from a reliance on oil and gas, so removing support for what will likely soon be a politically unattractive and financially vulnerable sector early is responsible for both the university and the planet.

Despite this core value, Ryerson’s existing investment policy doesn’t specify any strong commitment to sustainability, only stating that Ryerson’s investment managers ‘may’ consider what is relevant to environmental, social and governance factors when selecting investments. Ryerson currently outsources all investment decision-making to external partner Fiera Capital, placing our institutional responsibility for ethical investment onto these managers. 

Further, Ryerson doesn’t have direct ownership over stocks but has instead bought into a fund that gives us returns based on the performance of the overall portfolio. This fund has holdings in several companies that primarily profit through oil and gas extraction, including Pembina Pipeline and Canada Natural Resources. Fiera expresses a commitment to responsible investment in alignment with our policy but is opposed to divestment, preferring instead to pursue direct engagement with the companies in which they invest.

Engagement is one of two approaches when it comes to responsible investment: one can either ‘remove oneself from the problem’ by divesting or be a ‘part of the solution’ and encourage companies to develop more equitable practices. Fiera Capital is firmly in the second camp. While this dichotomy might make sense at first glance, we should question what equitable solution can actually be reached with corporations that make profits from the extraction and distribution of unsustainable resources. Even if some corporations are pursuing sustainable actions and Fiera is encouraging it, such as Pembina’s investigation of carbon capture technology, unless they are intentionally working to move away from fossil fuels to pursue sustainable energy, we can still do better. 

The only real solution for Ryerson is to cut all ties to the fossil fuel industry and, if possible, move funds to the sustainable energy sector. Here lies the possibility for a change at Ryerson as part of the global environmental movement; a change that can send a message to the energy market that sustainable energy is the future, and aligns the university with the spirit of boldness and innovation that Ryerson claims guides their actions. 

“While Ryerson is a smaller university, our investments still have an impact”

This is an option that is not only environmentally but fiscally responsible. By moving quickly and regaining control of its investments, Ryerson can stimulate growth in the already burgeoning energy industry, getting on the ground floor of a global shift that is already taking place. This will only lead to greater financial success in the long run. And in the short term, divesting from one sector doesn’t necessarily have any negative effects on the overall strength of the portfolio

While Ryerson is a smaller university, our investments still have an impact, especially when taken in the broader context of the overall market. Our size shouldn’t hold us back from pursuing the most environmentally sustainable actions and being a model to all university institutions for innovative thinking and progressive policy development.

As for students, they should ask for more from our university, since our bursaries and scholarships come from the returns on investments in the fund Fiera manages. Our success as students is directly linked to the financial success of an industry that is proven to damage our ecosystems and harm vulnerable communities across the world.

Working at the executive level has led to little progress, but as a collective, students have a voice that we can use to demand new, sustainable policies. We need to send a message to Ryerson from the bottom-up that substantial action must be made towards environmental responsibility, going all the way up to the corporations we’ve invested in. 

Divestment is still possible. Through a community movement, we can take an essential step towards creating a better future, for us and our planet.

MJ Wright is a fifth-year arts & contemporary studies student and student representative on the Board of Governors

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