It’s not complicated: the climate crisis is here to stay and the fossil fuel industry is to blame.

As an investor, the University of Waterloo should stop burying its head in the sand. 

An Open Letter to President Hamdullahpur and the University of Waterloo Board of Governors:

We would like to begin by thanking you for signing on to the UN’s Principles of Responsible Investments. We look forward to seeing how you implement these principles, especially given that climate change is identified as the #1 ESG issue.

That said, we were shocked by some comments made at the October board meeting.

A state of fossil-fueled denial 

We were dismayed to hear the Finance and Investment Chair, James Schlegel, refer to Shell, and other large fossil fuel companies, as big clean energy producers. He called the issue too complex for some to understand, but we students understand some very simple things. For one, these companies are the problem:

“The five largest publicly-traded oil and gas majors (ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP and Total) have invested over $1Bn of shareholder funds in the three years following the Paris Agreement on misleading climate-related branding and lobbying. […] [These] five oil majors are forecast to put a mere 3% of their 2019 capital expenditure towards low carbon technologies whilst US$110.4 billion will be put into more oil & gas.”

Misleadingly, while we hear fossil fuel companies praised, we also hear our student actions praised. President Hamdullahpur continuously emphasizes that “we are on the same side”, that this is a dialogue, that we are moving in the same direction. Yet UW has offered literally nothing on climate and investing, to the point of implausibly emphasizing that joining UNPRI is not about climate. Dennis Huber, Vice-President, Administration and Finance, told one of our members that UW did not join UNPRI because of climate – and that maybe in ten years UNPRI will call some other issue the #1 priority. Climate change will not be going away in the next ten years, it will only be getting worse – especially if we do nothing.

We, therefore, respectfully ask you stop praising activism and claiming that we are on the same side – and start showing us!

Time for urgent action 

We urge you to outline and share how joining the UNPRI will incorporate climate considerations into university investing as soon as possible. This aligns with the Board Chair, Karen Forbes’, call to think in an ongoing basis about investments in fossil fuels. Immediate first steps, for example, could be committing to:

  1. Studying UNPRI’s climate-prioritization: “UNPRI identifies climate change as ESG issue #1 and we’re studying this position to see how we need to fit climate into our ESG approach.”
  1. Researching climate risk: “Climate change is endangering multiple economic sectors and regions and so, within our ESG approach, we want to ensure that our investments are protected from climate impacts.”
  1. Considering transition risk: “The transition to clean energy is good for the climate, but it has also really hurt investments in the coal industry. It has the potential to hurt the oil industry, as well, so it is another risk that we want our fund managers to understand and track.”

Divestment is increasingly mainstream

With respect to divestment, many of the 133 universities across the planet that are divesting are doing so because of the financial risk that fossil fuel companies pose. In this context, it is fiduciary negligence for the University to continue ignoring the radical and pervasive effects of climate change on economies in general, and fossil fuel stocks in particular.

With respect to the practicality of divestment, Dennis Huber, Vice-President, Administration and Finance, also reported that, under current management, divestment would not be possible. We note that Concordia University recently became the third Canadian university to divest its fossil fuel holdings, joining UQAM  and Laval. We hear his concern but if a much smaller fund like Concordia’s can resolve this issue, so can the University of Waterloo.

The University of California began its journey by becoming a signatory to the UNPRI, and five years later it announced its decision to divest. We hope the University of Waterloo, with its new strategic plan that places such importance on sustainability and the climate, will come to this decision much more quickly. Investments are at risk, but more importantly, the University’s investment decisions are putting its students’ futures in peril.

In hope,

Students for a Fossil Free UW

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