Inspired by their students, professors at the University of British Columbia are set to begin voting next week on whether to ask the institution to divest its $1.2-billion endowment of any oil and gas stocks.
Last month, Concordia became the first Canadian university to commit to divesting when it took $5-million out of its $130-million endowment to see whether it could get comparable returns from socially responsible and environmentally sustainable investments. But campaign organizers at UBC say their institution could play a pivotal role in the Canadian movement by divesting of roughly $100-million at a time when slumping oil prices mean the move makes financial sense.
George Hoberg, an energy and environmental policy professor, is spearheading the campaign to persuade his colleagues to vote in an online referendum that starts Jan. 26 and ends Feb. 8. Twenty per cent of UBC's professors, librarians and program directors need to vote in the referendum, with a majority in favour of the divestment proposal, for the request to be formally sent to the board of governors for consideration some time this spring.
"We need to act now," said Dr. Hoberg. "This issue is particularly powerful [for professors] because we teach young people and we ought to be acting in their interests."
Last January, 77 per cent of student voters asked UBC's board of governors to divest from fossil fuels. As a result, the board implemented a new "responsible investment policy." It didn't commit to moving any money, but allowed for future divestment from particular sectors if two of the university's core constituencies – staff, faculty, alumni and students – supported for the move.
With the student vote in hand, Dr. Hoberg hopes a vote in favour of divestment by faculty will force the board to make the endowment free of fossil fuels.
UBC's $1.3-billion endowment is the country's second biggest after the University of Toronto's $1.5-billion portfolio, but its fossil-fuel investments more than double those of any other Canadian university, according to a report released last month by the Sustainable and Education Policy Network (SEPN). That report identified 27 active Canadian postsecondary divestment campaigns across six provinces, with 10 in Ontario and eight in British Columbia.
Most are led by student clubs allied with 350.org, a global environmental group that claimed last year to have persuaded 800 individual investors, cities, religious groups, universities and even the heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune to divest a total of about $50-billion from fossil fuel investments over the next five years. For now, 350.org and its allies know theirs is largely a symbolic movement, as total stock in the world's oil, gas and coal companies was still valued at nearly $5-trillion, according to a report in August by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Still, Wayne Wachell, chief executive officer and co-founder of Genus Capital Management, said clients of his firm first began asking to go "fossil fuel free" about two years ago and now such investments account for about 10 per cent of Genus' $1.3-billion portfolio.
"What's happening is a lot of foundations are concerned about their brand," said Mr. Wachell, who is scheduled to speak at a faculty-only event on the UBC referendum this Thursday night. "If they're in environmental areas, they have to really be careful about what they have in their portfolios."
Fossil-fuel stocks make up about 30 per cent of the Canadian stock market, which itself is less than 5 per cent of the global equity markets, Mr. Wachell said. He added that these fossil-fuel-free funds are invested heavily in banks, industrial and technology companies and are as profitable as Genus' global benchmark.
SEPN director Dr. Marcia McKenzie, an environmental education professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said divestment sends an important message to the oil and gas industry, but that universities might have a bigger net impact on climate change by addressing energy waste on their own campuses. Scandinavian universities have had success setting up revolving funds that put money into initiatives such as retro-fitting older buildings with more energy-efficient heating systems , Dr. McKenzie said.
Dr. Hoberg studied the science of global warming as a university student and then researched how it contributed to B.C.'s pine beetle infestation as a professor, but he was finally spurred into speaking out when he saw global warming activist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben present at a UBC symposium three years ago.
"Someone was asking McKibben, 'Doesn't becoming an activist undermine your credibility as a researcher and academic?' " Dr. Hoberg recalls. "McKibben's response was: 'This is the most significant problem humanity has ever confronted, what are you saving your credibility for?'
"For a number a number of people in the room that was like a punch to the gut."