Letter: Fossil fuel divestment is not enough – UBC must restructure its endowment fund to promote environmental justice

After years of advocacy, UBC finally agreed to divest from fossil fuel companies in December 2019. Before people start getting complacent, one must understand that fossil fuel divestment is not an end, but rather the first step towards a more socially and environmentally sustainable endowment fund.

For starters, the UBC has an endowment fund of approximately $2 billion, one of the largest among Canadian universities. The endowment fund plays a crucial role in funding scholarships, bursaries and research opportunities at UBC.

UBC agreed to divest from fossil fuel companies after pressure from activists, student groups like Climate Justice UBC (formerly known as UBCC350) and strongly worded opinion letters from Allard law professors like Dennis Pavlich and Jocelyn Stacey and Stepan Wood.

Many students and environmental activists welcomed UBC’s fossil fuel divestment pledge. There is no doubt that fossil fuel divestment is a huge step in promoting environmental sustainability. It is now time for UBC to revamp its endowment fund and explain to students how they will actively invest in co-ops and renewable energy companies. UBC’s Declaration on Climate Emergency explicitly states that meaningful climate action must amplify Indigenous Peoples’ human rights. To further that goal, UBC must actively invest in Indigenous businesses that promote renewable energy – it will help promote environmental justice and economically support Indigenous communities.

UBC should apologize for the harm it has caused by investing in fossil fuel companies and be a leader in promoting sustainable investment options. It is an absolute shame that the university has still not explicitly denounced the fossil fuel industry. UBC must explicitly state that their investment practices were harmful. UBC cannot be a sustainability leader or claim to promote reconciliation with Indigenous peoples unless they acknowledge that their investments in fossil fuel companies and pipelines have contributed to the destruction of sacred Indigenous lands.

Instead of spending millions on flashy marketing campaigns that speak about UBC's achievements, we need meaningful changes. One of the many ways UBC could promote reconciliation and environmental sustainability would be to dedicate at least 10 per cent of their endowment fund towards renewable energy and Indigenous organizations. UBC needs to understand that systemic changes do not come from token diversity gestures, but rather substantial changes that directly support Indigenous people.

The Board of Governors at UBC has faced criticism from students, professors and the community for the lack of transparency of its investment practices. It took almost a decade of activism to get the university to divest from fossil fuel companies.

Even though UBC has agreed to divest, the Board continues to face serious questions about transparency while dealing with their investment practices. Moreover, the legal community still has questions about why the university was continuously citing “fiduciary duty” as a reason to not divest for years. It also raises questions about whether the university was receiving poor legal advice, or ducking the issue by blaming their legal counsel. Needless to say, students deserve an answer.

To be fair, the university has seen significant changes in the past few years. Under Santa Ono’s leadership, UBC has committed to divestment, invested in environmental research and has made substantial commitments towards Indigenous reconciliation. However, much more needs to be done. UBC needs to revamp its endowment fund to be a leader in sustainability.

Dedicating a portion of the endowment fund towards renewable sources of energy will play a crucial role in promoting environmental sustainability. When it comes to sustainability, UBC should be encouraging students to promote environmental leadership proactively.

There is no doubt in my mind that the stars have aligned in terms of progressive activism at UBC. Firstly, UBC has extended Ono’s contract by five more years. Secondly, the newly appointed Board of Governors have relatively progressive political views. If one closely examines the background of the Board of Governors, they can see that many come from not-for-profit backgrounds or have actively led social justice campaigns. Most importantly, organizations like Climate Justice UBC have dedicated student leaders who are committed to seeing substantial change. However, UBC needs to stop relying solely on its internal legal team; their legal advice on fossil fuel divestment was perplexing and downright wrong. UBC’s legal team needs to apologize for misleading students for years.

UBC owes it to future generations to promote environmental sustainability. We must show strong environmental leadership if we want to live harmoniously with Mother Nature.

Astitwa Thapa holds an undergraduate degree in Environmental Sciences and is currently a Juris Doctor candidate at the Allard School of Law.