UBC board votes against divestment from fossil fuel industry

VANCOUVER -- The University of British Columbia has rejected calls from students and faculty to dump its holdings in the fossil fuel industry, instead promising to create a low-carbon investment fund.

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The board of governors voted Monday in favour of a motion from its finance committee not to divest and instead establish a so-called sustainable future fund. The fund would include a mandate for low-carbon emissions and be seeded with an initial allocation of $10 million.

Getting rid of certain investments is permissible, said finance committee chairman Greg Peet shortly before the vote, but "the universal exclusion of a legally-operating industry that provides irreplaceable goods and services is not."

Peet said aggressive screening criteria for the new fund will result in the divestment of numerous fossil fuel companies.

Investments tied to oil, gas and coal companies make up about 10 per cent of the university's $1.4-billion endowment. Divestment has been an ongoing issue for several years, with students and staff voting separately in favour of pushing fossil fuels out of UBC's portfolio.

Peet told the board Monday that the proposal from staff and students did not make a "compelling case" that divestment would have a meaningful impact on climate change through a moral or political message.

He said UBC's sustainable future fund would have a similar effect to a recommendation made by an advisory committee at the University of Toronto, which called for divestment from fossil fuel companies that "blatantly disregard" efforts to combat climate change.

Of the three student representatives on the board, two opposed the motion not to divest and one abstained. The remainder of the board voted in favour.

Campus-based environmental advocacy group Divest UBC had circulated a letter calling for a transparent, open and evidence-based consideration of divestment.

Spokesman Alex Hemingway told the board that the committee considering the issue refused to meet with his group and only invited it to the final meeting last week.

His statements prompted an apology from finance committee member Richard Johnston, who promised the consultation process would be fixed.

After the vote, several members of Divest UBC, who were wearing black and carrying anti-fossil fuel signs, stood and chanted in unison, "You are failing us."

Hemingway said after the vote that he was extremely disappointed. He said there are indications the sustainable future fund will continue to invest in coal companies.

"We need strong, dramatic action on climate change now, not a drop-in-the-bucket fund."

In 2014, UBC students voted 77 per cent in support of divestment. Last year, faculty voted 62 per cent in favour of selling off the school's fossil fuel holdings within five years.

Concordia University in Montreal became the first Canadian university to adopt a partial divestment policy in December 2014, though that measure only applies to a $5-million fund -- a fraction of the school's $130-million endowment.

The University of Calgary, McGill University in Montreal and Dalhousie University in Halifax have all decided against divestment. The University of Toronto's president is expected to make a final decision by April.


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