Amendment to divestment policy a “step backward”: student groups

Student groups advocating for Simon Fraser University to divest from fossil fuel companies are reeling after the university posted a draft to its divestment policy.

Called a “significant step backward” in a media release posted on the Embark website, the policy outlines ‘guidelines’ that the Responsible Investment Committee (RIC) will use to consider divesting from that company.

Those guidelines are based on:

  1. The extent to which SFU is invested in that entity
  2. If the entity derives more than 10 percent of its revenue from activities that cause social injury
  3. Evidence that divestment will produce a favourable outcome
  4. Impact on the university’s “fiduciary duty [. . .] to maximize return on its investments”

This draft policy comes after three years of the Divest SFU campaign pressuring the university to rethink its stance on fossil fuels. A joint venture between SFU350 and Embark, the campaign calls on SFU to “immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and to divest within five years from direct ownership” in order to address climate change. Josh Cairns, executive director of Embark, conceded in the release that until now “the university has made considerable progress regarding its stance on divestment.”

However, Cairns elaborated on the Embark website that this policy draft isn’t quite up to snuff. He argued that “the policy revision, if it is adopted in its current form, creates an unjust test for the university’s investments that ensure divestment will not occur.”

This is in line with the trend of Canadian universities rejecting divestment. Earlier this year, McGill, UBC, and the University of Toronto have all rejected calls to divest from fossil fuels. However, Cairns explained that SFU should look to the “University of Ottawa, which recently committed to decarbonizing its investments in accordance with Canada’s emission reduction commitments.”

Cairns said in a separate media release that “The revision suggests that the university is comfortable investing in an entity that profits from harming people or the environment — as long as the entity’s revenue from harmful activity is below an arbitrary 10 percent threshold, and as long others are also investing in the entity.”

The same media release noted that under the new conditions it might be “all but impossible” for divestment to occur at SFU.

The issue of divestment at SFU touches on a local conflict that has been playing out over the past few years.

Kinder Morgan is seeking to expand the existing Trans Mountain Pipeline that transports tar sands products from Edmonton to Burnaby. This project has elicited controversy due to environmental and safety concerns. The proposed expansion would triple its capacity, but critics argue that the economic benefit to the province is marginal, especially given the environmental risks.

Earlier this month, MP for Burnaby North-Seymour Terry Beech held a consultation meeting to address Canada’s Climate Change Action Plan, and to continue the discussion about the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. The event is the first in a series taking place over the summer.

As for what will happen if SFU rejects divestment outright, SFU350 has been collecting students’ signatures, pledging “direct action.” A similar situation unfolded after McGill rejected divestment this March: students staged a sit-in at the vice chancellor’s office for days, while supporters camped outside.

Cairns finished his statement by putting the issue in no uncertain terms. He spoke to the fact that SFU is a signatory of the Paris Pledge for Action, a document that acknowledges the gravity of climate change, and commits to limiting global warming to 2 C above pre-industrial levels. “SFU should ensure its actions align with the just future it has publicly committed to,” he argued.

The RIC is currently accepting emailed comments on its draft policy until August 7, and will review in September.