Difficult Questions for President Gertler

The December 1 Adams Sustainability Celebration Webinar was designed to promote the University of Toronto’s current investing strategy and their recent “Investing to Address Climate Change Charter”. In promoting this event, questions for the president on this plan were encouraged and welcomed advance and during the webinar. Concerned students, staff, and faculty members submitted over 20 questions during this webinar, however very few were answered. The President and his administration, have historically turned a blind eye to the fact that fossil fuel divestment is not only about getting CO2 emissions under control, but is equally about ending detriment to the land, water, biodiversity, and human life that is directly caused the extraction projects they continue to invest. They have yet to engage in dialogue around environmental racism and restorative justice for communities that have been made unlivable by fossil fuel project investments they defend. During the Webinar the President selectively spoke to questions about the universities emissions, and in general when it came to any questions that considered the environmental impact to the land and communities there were no responses given at all.

Read our questions below:

Risk to Human Life and Biodiversity

  1. The charter here emphasizes climate-associated risks to investments, but does not address climate risks to human and non-human life. How does the university plan to address the ways that its investments in fossil fuel companies are actively putting people, especially the global poor and Indigenous, at high risk for climate-related disasters? How is it possible for the university to support the people whose livelihoods will be ruined by climate change while simultaneously investing in the industry that’s causing all this damage?
  2. While the Climate Charter addresses the risks that climate change poses to UofT’s investments, it fails to account for any social-injuries that are sustained from harmful investment practices. In other words, there is no consideration for the impact of fossil fuel investments on Indigneous peoples and other marginalized communities, the global poor, and land. How does UofT plan on expanding its definition of “risk” and address the non-climate harms of its investments?
  3. The university says that it prioritizes reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, yet remains invested in the fossil fuel industry that is known for its direct transgressions on Indigenous rights, causing suffering to people and land. How can a mandate of ESG investments, which allow continued investment in fossil fuels, account for this violation to Indigenous treaty and land rights?
  4. The charter references adopting investment guidelines that comply with the UN-supported Principles of Responsible Investment. Does U of T also plan on complying with the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People, which highlights the necessity for free, prior, and informed consent before any development, including fossil fuel extraction and transportation, can proceed on unceded Indigenous land? I understand that U of T does not directly invest in companies but instead invests into pooled funds. Do any of these pooled funds contribute to development projects that currently violate UNDRIP like the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline, Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, and Site C dam? Will the university disclose the recipients of pooled funds in the future?
  5. In the 80s, UofT argued against divesting from Apartheid South Africa in order to stay “apolitical”. UofT is currently providing the same moral and political support to fossil fuel companies as it did to Apartheid. Given that the University later recognized that it should not have kept investments in Apartheid South Africa, how do you reconcile with your position on fossil fuel divestment?
  6. This Charter states that “Universities have a responsibility to act constructively to address [climate change]”. If this is true, then it is logical to expect Universities to use their capital to invest in climate change mitigation industries as a direct action to address climate change. The Charter does not refer to this; does UofT plan on investing in such industries?
  7. What about non-climate and non-financial harms? Harms to people? Harms to life? Harms to land?

ESG and Carbon Intensity

  1. Mark Carney, who was on the advisory committee for the charter, has recently come out and said that ESG principles are not sufficient as a tool for addressing the climate crisis. Do you have any response to that?
  2. This charter uses ESG factors and carbon intensity reduction as measures of responsible investing, both of which have come under criticism by both climate activists and industry professionals for failing to address the root causes of climate change by not being sufficiently binding. How does the university plan to address this, and better standardize and improve the accountability measures in place (or consider alternatives) to guarantee the reduction of  the university’s carbon footprint and negative social impact?
  3. There are no standard criteria for investment managers who claim to follow ESG principles. Anyone can claim this with no requirement of transparency. How does UTAM ensure that its investment managers adhere to ESG principles, and more importantly, how can stakeholders in the university know that UTAM adheres to ESG principles?
  4. The charter encourages other universities to adopt ESG and carbon reductions strategies that many climate activists have pointed out are flawed and misleading, and can theoretically even allow increased emissions in the case of carbon intensity. How can the university be a climate leader when the leadership it’s engaged in is pushing other universities to adopt measures which are not binding and may even allow for increased emissions?
  5. The concept of a carbon footprint was popularized by BP oil to divert attention and blame from the climate crisis onto individuals and away from the root cause: the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. How do you justify using this concept to measure “impact”?
  6. Measuring carbon footprint only takes into account direct emissions and doesn’t include any downstream emissions. For example, approximately 99 percent of life-cycle emissions from coal occur during combustion, but these emissions are excluded from a coal mining company’s investment carbon footprint. How can even an absolute carbon footprint be an accurate measure of the impact of a company on climate change if it doesn’t take into account the full impact of extraction and transportation companies?
  7. Fossil fuel extraction companies are accounted as having low scope 1 or 2 emissions, and a small carbon footprint. Of what use is a metric which doesn’t capture the damage that fossil fuel extraction does, and why does the University of Toronto use these to guide their investing practices?
  8. The way carbon footprint is measured currently in UofT’s policies omits Scope 3 carbon emissions, meaning that the emissions produced by the actual burning of fossil fuels are excluded from our analysis of how “sustainable” a fossil fuel company is. This allows fossil fuel companies to be considered “low-carbon”. How does UofT plan to address indirect emissions in its investments and account for the full impact of its investment choices?
  9. There are over a dozen ESG classification systems, and each has different criteria. How does UTAM account for differences in ESG scoring systems across the different investment managers it hires?
  10. So If UofT is growing its investment portfolio per year (which it is), then it could do absolutely nothing and we’d still see a reduction in carbon footprint because it is measured in CO2 per $1M invested. Why not just use a more transparent and honest metric?

Transparency

  1. Why hasn’t UofT committed to a divestment timeline? Since it takes so long, shouldn’t the university get started?
  2. will UofT/UTAM make these standards publicly known in efforts for transparency and scrutiny on whether these standards truly paint an accurate disclosure of information? I’m very interested in the result that UofT has reduced its absolute investment emissions by 12.9%. Is there a certain percentage goal that UofT is aiming for and in what timeline?
  3. Without an outside party to formally audit UofT’s investments, how can we trust that UofT will adhere to ethical and environmental principles? Does UofT plan to hire a third-party to conduct a formal audit of UTAM’s ESG and carbon-intensity commitments? Why or why not?
  4. When UBC adopted a low-carbon investment strategy under the guise of responsible investing, their financial reports still showed that the university was investing in Exxon Mobil, Kinder Morgan, and Shell, among other companies one would not consider “low-carbon”. Does anything in the charter prevent investments in fossil fuel companies from being classified as “low-carbon”?
  5. Under pooled investment strategies, other universities have been found to be actively investing in companies that are clearly not low-carbon (such as Shell and Exxon mobil) even under commitments to responsibly and sustainably invest. How will you ensure that UofT won’t fall victim to the same hypocrisy?
  6. It’s been short four years, but you also mentioned that divestment timelines can span 3-5 years. So, in the past 4 years, UofT could have fully divested, but instead chose false solutions such as those outlined in the climate charter. Why has UofT stalled?
  7. How can stakeholders be sure of the impact of UTAM’s investments when they didn’t comply with our freedom of information request? UTAM claims it is in close and frequent contact with its investemnt managers, yet told us that it would be impossible to track down uoft’s investment information. How is this possible?

Other Universities Policies

  1. Five other Canadian universities, half of the universities in the UK, and the entire University of California system have already committed to full divestment. These commitments reject false solutions like ESGs and carbon-intensity investments, and have set the precedent that full divestment from the fossil fuel industry and other harmful industries is the only way forward. If UofT is to remain a world leader in higher-education, then why are we committing to agreements like the Climate Charter when we should be committing to full divestment from harmful industries?