Reasons to Divest our Pension

1) Divestment is financially sound. It reduces risk from holding overvalued fossil fuel assets

Scientists, industry, and government leaders alike have agreed that catastrophic climate disruption will take place if global average temperature exceeds 2°C.[1] To prevent warming beyond this threshold, two-thirds of the oil, coal, and gas in proven fossil fuel reserves must remain unburned.[2], [3] Therefore, in the long term, the mission of businesses to realize monetary value out of their fossil fuel assets is problematic. On the one hand, their continuing and expanded use is incompatible with the conditions for a healthy planet. On the other hand, their financial value will decline as society comes to terms with the need to leave them in the ground. They, and the infrastructure supporting their extraction, transportation, refinement, and consumption, become ‘stranded assets’. As society begins to internalize external costs by pricing car­bon, the market value of fossil fuels and associated infrastructure will decline, and significantly.

 This financial conundrum is now widely understood. A report of the Generation Foundation, committed to sustainable capitalism, urges “diversifying investments into opportunities positioned to succeed in a low carbon economy; and divesting fossil fuel-intensive assets in order to mitigate or eliminate risks related to carbon.”[4], [5], [6] At the recent Davos World Economic Forum (2014), Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank chief, supported fossil fuels divestment, citing the need for investors (such as pension funds and university endowments) to think about their fiduciary duty in the long term.[7] Divesting is the in best interests of investors. A recent report found that excluding the top 200 fossil fuel companies from an indexed portfolio would increase theoretical return risk by a mere 0.003% – and this is without considering the write-down costs of their becoming stranded assets.[8] Even Wall street is taking what is sometimes called the ‘carbon bubble’ seriously, as Bloomberg added a function called the Carbon Risk Valuation Tool, which allows investors to view the impact of say, declining oil prices due to carbon regulations, on companies’ stock prices, or how a carbon tax would affect the value of a portfolio.[9]

2) To align investments with a livable planet

The science is clear: anthropogenic carbon emissions are causing rapid climate change worldwide.[10] These dramatic changes have a profound economic impact globally and will cost the Canadian economy $5 billion / year by 2020.[11] Climate change kills thousands of individuals[12], creates environmental refugees[13] and fossil fuels generate massive environmental effects not only associated with their burning, but also with their extraction, transportation, and refinement.[14], [15]

Our retirement should not be based upon investments in companies who produce GHG emissions.

3) We face a political deadlock on climate action.

Our best climate science warns that industrialized countries like Canada need to reduce emissions by at least 80% compared to 2000 levels by 2050 if we are to avoid significant climatic instability. G8 countries, including Canada, have affirmed these projections[16] and yet are not taking action commensurate with the scale of the challenge. Why the inaction? There are multiple reasons, but industrial intransigence is a primary one.

Six out of the ten wealthiest companies in the world are oil companies. A stiff global price on carbon that would begin seriously incentivizing alternatives runs against the rational self-interest of these companies and so they have historically wielded their considerable economic power to maintain the status quo.[17]

Divestment is a strategy geared towards ending the current stalemate on climate action. The theory is that if enough respected institutions like universities, municipalities, and churches divest from fossil fuel companies, then this will help challenge the social license to operate which these companies currently enjoy. This challenge will make it easier for governments to impose the kind of measures we need to make real progress on emission reductions (stiff carbon prices, stiffer regulations ensuring known reserves stay in the ground, and major investments in clean energy research, deployment, and infrastructure). Is this strategy guaranteed to work? No. There are no guarantees in politics. But leadership on this burning issue needs to come from somewhere. Let it be with us. We in the University sector have a unique opportunity to crack the political deadlock and contribute positively to the climate challenge.

Divestment campaigns are being run at over 300 universities across North America. We at UVic are part of a growing and historic movement.


[1] Global leaders recognized the two degree threshold in the Copenhagen accord. United Nations, (2009). “Report of the Conference of the Parties on its fifteenth session, held in Copenhagen from 7 to 19 December 2009” [Online]. Available: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2009/cop15/eng/11a01.pdf
[2] No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal. International Energy Agency, (2012). “World Energy Report” [Online]. Available: http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/
[3] Berners-Lee, M. & Clark, D, The Burning Question (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2013).
[4] Generation Foundation, (2013). “Stranded Carbon Assets: Why and How Carbon Risks Should Be Incorporated in Investment Analysis” [Online]. Available: http://www.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/publications/Policy/docs/PB-unburnable-carbon-2013-wasted-capital-stranded-assets.pdf
[5] Grantham Research Institute of Climate Change and the Environment, (2013). “Unburnable Carbon: Wasted Capital and Stranded Assets” [Online]. Available: http://www.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/publications/Policy/docs/PB-unburnable-carbon-2013-wasted-capital-stranded-assets.pdf
[6] Carbon Disclosure Project, (2013). “Lower Emissions – Higher ROI” [Online]. Available: https://www.cdp.net/CDPResults/Carbon-action-report-2013.pdf
[7] King, E, (2014). “World Bank chief backs fossil fuel divestment drive” [Online]. Available: http://www.rtcc.org/2014/01/27/world-bank-chief-backs-fossil-fuel-divestment-drive/
[8] Geddes, P, (2013). “Do the Investment Math: Building a Carbon-Free Portfolio” [Online]. Available: https://www.aperiogroup.com/system/files/documents/building_a_carbon_free_portfolio.pdf
[9] Bloomberg New Energy Finance, (2013). “Bloomberge Carbon Risk Valuation Tool” [Online]. Available: http://about.bnef.com/files/2013/12/BNEF_WP_2013-11-25_Carbon-Risk-Valuation-Tool.pdf
[10] IPCC, (2013). “Climate Change 2013. The Physical Science Basis” [Online]. Available: http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/#.UvXKq_ldWSp
[11] Canada, National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. (2011). “Paying the Price: The Economic Impacts of Climate Change for Canada” [Online]. Available: http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/webarchives2/20130322143132/http://nrtee-trnee.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/paying-the-price.pdf
[12] Global Humanitarian Forum, (2009). “Human Impact Report- Climate Change: The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis” [Online]. Available: http://www.ghf-ge.org/human-impact-report.pdf
[13] Biermann, F and I. Boas. (2010) “Preparing for a warmer world. Towards a global governance system to protect climate refugees”, Global Environmental Politics, 10 (60–88).
[14] Rosenzweig, C. et al., (2008) “Attributing physical and biological impacts to anthropogenic climate change”, Nature, 453(353-357).
[15] IPCC, (2007). “Climate Change 2007- Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” [Online]. Available: http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg2/en/ch8.html
[16] The Guardian, (2009). “G8 agrees to climate targets despite differences with developing nations” [Online] Available: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jul/08/g8-climate-carbon-emission-targets
[17] Climate Progress, (2012). “Three ways big oil spends its profits to defend oil subsidies and defeat clean energy” [Online] Available: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/10/24/1064231/three-ways-big-oil-spends-its-profits-to-defend-oil-subsidies-and-defeat-clean-energy/