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Fossil fuel divestment: Eroding the 'hydrocarbon industry's social licence to operate'

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"It always seems impossible until it is done." - Nelson Mandela

The fossil fuel divestment movement may be far from "done," but the movement has struck an undeniable chord in recent months. Across North America and around the world, hundreds of campaigns are springing up at universities, religious institutions and local governments, demanding that these institutions withdraw their investments from the powerful, carbon-polluting fossil fuel industry. According to new research from the University of Oxford, fossil fuel divestment is "growing faster than any previous divestment campaign," including the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s.

The reasoning behind divestment is simple. If it's wrong to wreck the climate, then it's wrong to profit from that wreckage.

The fossil fuel industry is at the centre of the looming climate crisis. Simply put, to keep global warming within two degrees (and prevent runaway climate change), about 60-80 per cent of the proven reserves of fossil fuels worldwide must stay in the ground. These reserves are already "on the books" of the biggest fossil fuel companies, which are scrambling to extract them as quickly as possible (while even the likes of HSBC have begun to recognize that, as we face up to a carbon-constrained world, these assets will soon be considered "unburnable"). 

As a UBC graduate student, I've watched my university strive to position itself as an exemplar of environmental sustainability. Yet there is a deep disconnect between this public commitment and the state of UBC’s $1-billion endowment fund, which includes tens of millions of dollars invested in the fossil fuel industry (on the order of $100 million, according to a recent estimate).

Last month, a coalition of students, faculty and staff at UBC Vancouver launched a new divestment campaign to urge the university to withdraw these investments. Divest UBC has already gathered signatures from over 1000 students, and the campaign is accelerating quickly, with divestment going to a student-wide referendum in January. While the referendum isn’t binding on the university, if passed, it will commit the student union to pressure UBC for divestment.

Divestment campaigns have also taken off at Canada’s other largest universities, including McGill, the University of Toronto and many others. Perhaps the most telling evidence of the movement's momentum, however, is that the business sector itself is starting to sit up and take notice. This month the energy industry publication Alberta Oil warned in a feature article that industry "ignores the fossil fuel divestiture movement at its own peril," since "its real intention is to erode the hydrocarbon industry’s social licence to operate." As recent Oxford research (cited above) suggests, this type of "stigmatisation poses a far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies."

When the public better understands the destructive impact of the industry on the climate, demands for political action rise. "In every [past] case we reviewed, divestment campaigns were successful in lobbying for restrictive legislation," the Oxford study’s author notes.

UBC President Stephen J. Toope recently opined that "the magic of the endowment is that it brings benefits not just for this generation, but for all generations." Surely, an endowment that takes this mission seriously cannot continue investing in an industry that so flagrantly threatens the future of the planet, and with it, the future of those generations to come. 

Alex Hemingway is an activist, PhD student in Political Science, and IES EuroPol Fellow at the University of British Columbia. He received master's degrees in Global Politics and Social Policy at the London School of Economics, and grew up in Prince George, B.C. You can learn more about Divest UBC by visiting their Facebook page

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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