By Luke Faulks, SFU student
This summer, unprecedented temperatures captured the world’s attention when domestic and international news outlets warned about record-breaking heat in Lytton, just days before the town was destroyed in a wildfire. As grim as this was, the horror of the situation might reduce climate apathy and outright denial among individuals and institutions.
But one institution seemingly not swayed by BC’s distressing new normal? Simon Fraser University.
To be fair, SFU has taken important steps on climate. In 2016, the university committed to a 30% reduction in the carbon footprint of its investment portfolio by 2030. SFU did not opt for complete divestment, with former SFU president Andrew Petter claiming it would be impossible as many of SFU’s investments were in pooled funds.
In 2019, SFU pledged to have a 45% reduction in investments in carbon-intensive companies by 2025, thanks in part to student advocacy. This year alone, as part of a wider array of climate strategies under the 2020 Strategic Sustainability Plan, construction of a new $33M biomass facility was completed on Burnaby campus. This has reduced greenhouse gas emissions from campus and UniverCity’s heating systems by 80%.
While all of this is a good start, it’s just not enough.
Other universities, in Canada and abroad, have stepped up to fully divest themselves of fossil fuel investments. In 2019, UBC voted to shift $380 million from its $2 billion investment portfolio into a “sustainable fund” aimed at promoting decarbonization. After a 100-hour hunger strike by the school’s chapter of Extinction Rebellion, the Board finally agreed to divest the rest of the funds of fossil fuel investments. Following UBC, SFU needs to consider new information on climate change and critically reassess its investment portfolio.
The climate crisis is strongly linked with ecocide, which international legal experts define as engaging in unlawful acts which knowingly damage the environment and have long term impacts. The crisis is also wrapped up in issues of potential genocide, since rising sea levels could lead to populations being displaced, loss of biodiversity, and food insecurity.
If the morality of addressing climate change, or the thought of being beaten to the punch by UBC isn’t enough to change SFU’s stance on divestment, the financial aspect might.
In 2018–19, the fossil fuel sector was the “worst performing segment” of the stock market. As a result, University of Victoria’s Corporate Mapping Project reported UVIC’s fossil fuel investments suffered a $4 million loss between March 2018 and March 2019. The following year, CNBC’s Jim Cramer argued fossil fuel stocks were entering a “death knell phase” due to “young investor’s concerns about climate change.” So not only is SFU missing an opportunity to be a climate leader, we’re also probably losing money by supporting a harmful industry.
It’s worth mentioning there remains some debate as to the efficacy of divestment as a climate tool. While it’s true divestment alone doesn’t directly reduce the demand for fossil fuels, it does raise the cost of financing for companies in carbon-intensive industries like coal, oil, and natural gas. Demand-side issues can be tackled by separate policies. Fortunately, that, too, is in SFU’s power.
Divestment is just the beginning of what the university could accomplish with its investments. As the fossil fuel sector stumbles, other sectors poised to benefit from a clean energy transition offer better returns on investment — both in terms of profit and positive social impact.
The most obvious tool to fight climate change remains renewable energy — an area SFU is expected to delve into on-campus, as per their 2025 Sustainability Plan. The price of solar and wind energy have seen significant drops in price this decade, supporting their rapid adoption. Investing in renewables would not only help continued price reduction, it can provide a return on investment as their popularity increases.
In BC, Indigenous groups vying for energy independence and a new source of revenue have turned to local renewable energy projects. Despite regulatory hurdles, some projects have moved forward. Investing in Indigenous renewable energy projects can help manifest SFU’s commitment to reconciliation.
There are also less obvious investing strategies to fight climate change. By investing in companies producing or researching meat substitutes, SFU can support an emerging industry aimed at tackling the environmental impact of the agricultural sector. This industry is, according to Forbes, poised for a takeoff.
Another effective climate tool is energy efficient retrofits to reduce emissions from buildings. The practice of retrofitting has to do with replacing old “energy-consuming systems” with more energy-efficient appliances, light fixtures, ventilation systems or better insulation to reduce heat loss. Revamping existing buildings to reduce energy use offers greater potential decarbonization than building new low-carbon buildings. Investing in companies performing retrofits is a positive way to elevate climate action while profiting.
Since SFU’s initial announcement of partial divestment in 2016, we’ve seen successive summers with out-of-control wildfires, two dire reports by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reinforcing the importance of climate action (in 2018 and 2021), and a BC town leveled by fire.
It’s time for SFU to scale up its climate ambition: a healthy fossil fuel industry is incompatible with a healthy BC.