Dalhousie University Reconsiders Fossil Fuel Divestment

A new report moves forward the conversation on how to deal with bad actors in the fossil fuel industry.

Dalhousie University has released the Final Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of Senate on Fossil Fuel Divestment. I was one of six members of the Committee, and we reported our findings to Senate on March 14. See CBC’s coverage here.

The Final Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of Senate on Fossil Fuel Divestment at Dalhousie University.
The Final Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of Senate on Fossil Fuel Divestment at Dalhousie University.

Divestment from fossil fuels was initially proposed by campus group Divest Dal as a way for Dalhousie University to help in the fight against climate change. While Dalhousie’s Board of Governors rejected their proposal, it spurred Senate to form a committee to further investigate the issue. The Committee was charged with canvassing the community for input on the risks and opportunities posed by divestment, and with preparing an analysis. The report is the product of that effort.

While the Committee stopped short of recommending outright divestment, it advocated the more “nuanced approach” of “ethical investment guidelines” that accomplish much the same thing. The reasons for taking this approach are argued in considerable detail. The report should help inform similar conversations at universities across Canada.

The Committee operated under a consensus model so that the results would reflect (insofar as is possible) the aspirations of the Dalhousie community. The approach seems to have been successful; Senate accepted the report and almost unanimously approved the following motion (there was one abstention):

“THAT Senate approve the co‐chairs of the ad hoc Committee of Senate on Fossil Fuel Divestment and the Chair of Senate, and 2 additional Senate representatives, including 1 student senator, pursue the recommendations in the report of the ad hoc committee of Senate on Fossil Fuel Divestment through engagement with the Board of Governors with the intention of reviewing institutional policy and practices on ethical investment and other strategic initiatives to address climate change, and report back to Senate by October 2016.

Thus, a path toward dealing with bad actors in the fossil fuel industry is now underway at Dalhousie University. Hopefully the governing bodies at Dalhousie University will quickly proceed to implement the Report’s recommendations.

The report recommends the following criteria for triggering an ethical review of a given company:

  • Lobbying of the public, government departments or government decision makers, either directly or indirectly through political or financial support, against effective climate policy, environmental stewardship or other measures connected to the transition to greenhouse gas emissions neutrality.

  • Opposition to global cooperation on climate mitigation, adaptation and impact evaluation, or the transition to greenhouse gas emissions neutrality.

  • Support of or membership in organizations actively promoting climate change denial or actively attempting to confuse the public about the overwhelming scientific consensus about the human contribution to climate change.

  • Financial valuations based on significant asset holdings in the form of rights to fossil fuel reserves that, based on current technology, would need to remain undeveloped to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Companies that fail such a review would not be eligible for investment from Dalhousie University’s endowment fund. Crucially, the report recommended using a

“…reverse onus approach, whereby Dalhousie would notify companies for which ethical concerns have been raised of the intent to withdraw investment within a specified time period unless the company demonstrates to the satisfaction of the University that its business practices and history align with Dalhousie’s ethical investment guidelines on climate change and environmental stewardship.”

The Committee suggested using the 200 companies listed on the Carbon Tracker 200 as a starting point.

The report was mostly unchanged from the preliminary report that I described in the Fall. In light of further community input, we added a section on Methodology, and also included examples of positive actions that should be expected from fossil fuel companies.