Getting rid of petroleum stocks is a crucial first step for universities

From Globe and Mail:

Kathryn Harrison, George Hoberg, and David Tindall are faculty members in, respectively, Political Science, Forest Resources Management and Sociology at the University of British Columbia.

Faculty members at the University of British Columbia are voting this week on a resolution calling on the university to divest its endowment from fossil-fuel stocks over a period of five years. UBC students voted overwhelmingly in favour of divestment last year.

In our experience, critics of divestment by universities and other public institutions typically offer three arguments: That moral principles have no place in institutional investments; that those who advocate divestment are naive, or even hypocritical, because they rely on fossil fuels themselves; and that the focus on fossil-fuel producers is misplaced because they are only serving consumer demand. We have considered and reject each of these three points.

First, it’s true that the divestment movement is predicated on a moral argument. Our students do not want their education – an investment in their future – to be funded by profits from industries whose activities are inherently detrimental to that future. The fact that others might be happy to consume or profit from fossil fuels does not detract from that principled position.

Some have argued that while individuals are free to invest their own money according to their principles, public institutions must seek only to maximize returns. We disagree. Universities, churches, and governments make moral decisions on behalf of their communities all the time. We see no reason that investments should be any different. Nor should the status quo be exempt from moral scrutiny. That universities currently seek to profit from fossil fuels is not morally neutral. It is a choice to support activities that their own researchers have concluded are antithetical to ecological sustainability, human welfare and social justice.

Second, it is true that those who call for divestment rely on fossil fuels in their own lives. It is impossible to avoid reliance on fossil fuels in today’s economy, however committed one is to reducing one’s personal carbon footprint. But to argue that by living in the modern world one forgoes the right to call for change is to dismiss out of hand almost all possibilities for social change.

Third, it’s often argued that divestment simply won’t work, because today’s consumers will continue to demand fossil fuels. But that can and must change. Just as tobacco companies worked feverishly to challenge the scientific conclusion that cigarettes cause cancer and to thwart public policies to deter smoking, so too have fossil-fuel companies led the charge against equally certain climate science and policies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Divestment challenges those firms’ social license, just as anti-smoking campaigns did for the tobacco industry. It alerts individuals, as both consumers and citizens, to the impact of their decisions.

That is critical because, at the end of the day, there is no question that divestment is a second-best solution. Government action, ideally via a national carbon price, is the preferred response to climate change.

Unfortunately, government leadership on climate change has been in short supply in Canada. We have seen ten national climate plans over 25 years, none of which has even come close to meeting its targets. In the meantime, Canada’s emissions have increased steadily. Policies have been promised but not implemented, a trend exemplified by the federal government’s recent abandonment of its commitment to regulate emissions from oil production – a sector that accounts for most of Canada’s emissions growth.

Today’s youth are understandably impatient with this leadership vacuum. In creating the divestment movement they are also facilitating the preferred solution of government action. In mobilizing principled rejection of an unsustainable industry, divestment helps to undermine the political influence of fossil-fuel companies and thus to create greater political space for elected leaders to adopt much-needed policies to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

The divestment movement has emerged as a powerful voice for our students’ generation, demanding, justifiably, that their universities, markets and ultimately our elected representatives do better. We stand with them.

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Opinion: Fossil-fuel divestment urged at UBC

By David Green, Kathryn Harrison and George Hoberg, Special to the Vancouver Sun

We, along with more than 170 other faculty members, this week signed an open letter calling on the University of British Columbia to divest from fossil fuels. In so doing, we are inspired by our students, who last year voted almost 4-1 in favour of divestment.

The UBC Faculty Association will decide on Monday whether to hold a referendum calling on the university to immediately forgo further investments in fossil-fuel companies, and divest from existing fossil-fuel holdings within five years.

Academic researchers understand all too well that climate change presents an urgent crisis for humanity. The science is clear: the evidence is overwhelming that we are hurtling towards a future that is dangerous for humankind. Immediate actions are required to restructure our energy systems away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy. Luckily, research by engineers and economists also shows that such a transition is both technologically feasible and affordable.

In addition to conducting research, professors also interact daily with today’s youth, who will suffer the greatest consequences should we fail to address the climate crisis. As teachers, we are reminded of our moral duty to future generations. We believe that is inconsistent with UBC’s core values of sustainability, global citizenship, and innovation to support an industry whose products are driving us toward an unsustainable future. And it is disturbing to us that our students’ education, an investment in their future, should be funded in part by profits from an industry that harms that same future.

Some are concerned that divestment might reduce the income UBC receives from its endowment, but this need not to be the case. Studies designed to measure the impact of divestment have found little or no impact on returns. Indeed, there are increasing concerns, from the likes of the Governor of the Bank of England and major pension funds, that a “carbon bubble” could pose a significant threat to fossil-fuel investments. Just as UBC has undertaken renewal of its facilities and operations as a “living laboratory” for sustainability, we call on our university to apply its expertise and values with the same vigour to its endowment. UBC should devise a profitable fossil-free portfolio that inspires sustainable investing by other institutions.

Others argue UBC should maintain ownership so that it can exercise leverage as a shareholder. However, because the business model of fossil-fuel companies relies fundamentally on exploiting carbon reserves that humanity can’t afford to burn, working through shareholder channels is inadequate to achieve the transformative changes required. These urgent times demand rapid and significant changes in our energy system, and we believe those changes would be better fostered through the more dramatic action of divestment. Moreover, divestment rejects the dissembling tactics of the fossil-fuel industry, including efforts to mislead the public about climate science and to delay the adoption of cost-effective policies that draw on social science research.

No one would argue that UBC divestment would single-handedly change our planet’s future. We also realize our society and economy as currently structured need fossil fuels to operate. If we are to leave our children a sustainable future, we need to societal-level change, and that is a much taller order than the decision to divest. With a problem on this scale, people are often unwilling to act unless they are sure others are ready to do the same. To that end, divestment is, more than anything else, a signal to each other that we recognize the scope of the problem and we are willing to start taking actions to address it. The divestment movement contributed to an international groundswell of public opinion against apartheid in South Africa. Divestment can play the same role in affirming the moral certainty that we need to move away from fossil fuels.

Divestment is an act of leadership. We are proud of UBC’s commitment to sustainability. We also support the overwhelming call by our students for divestment from fossil fuels. The time has come for UBC to take the next step in living to its ideals.

David Green, Kathryn Harrison, and George Hoberg are, respectively, professors of economics, political science, and forest resources management at UBC. The faculty open letter and signatories can be found at

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Opinion: Can we please get the facts right? A recent critique of the province’s carbon tax was rife with errors

A Sustainable Prosperity study by Stewart Elgie and Jessica McClay that reported fuel consumption in British Columbia has declined by 18.8 per cent more than in the rest of Canada since adoption of the carbon tax has prompted howls of disbelief from predictable quarters. However, Elizabeth Nickson’s recent commentary, “Carbon taxes a war on poor” (Issues and Ideas, Aug. 15), sets a new low for errors of facts and logic.

Contrary to Nickson’s assertion, Elgie and McClay do not claim that the entire reduction in fuel use in B.C. is attributable to the carbon tax. They do argue that divergent trends in fuel consumption in B.C. and the rest of Canada are suggestive that the tax is working, but the authors are careful to acknowledge that further analysis is needed.

Their conclusion is strengthened, however, by a more recent study by economists Nic Rivers and Brandon Schaufele. After statistically controlling for other potential explanations, including differences among provinces in gas prices and economic conditions, the authors attribute a 12.5 per cent reduction in gasoline consumption to the B.C. tax. (Elgie and McClay’s figure is for all petroleum fuels subject to the tax.)

Nickson argues that the decline in fuel consumption can be explained by British Columbians fleeing the carbon tax to purchase their gasoline in the United States. Let’s consider the evidence. There was an increase Canada-wide in single-day trips to the U.S. from 2008 to 2012. That is consistent with the strength of the Canadian dollar, which accounts for most historical variation in cross-border shopping. Saving money on gasoline — and a host of other goods — appeals to Canadians in all provinces.

The increase in single-day trips from 2008 to 2012 was largest in B.C., however. This is consistent with a carbon tax effect, though other explanations also are conceivable. Geography makes it easier for British Columbians than other Canadians to flock across the border when the dollar is strong. And there were accounts of increased cross-border shopping after the HST was introduced in 2009.

Still, even if all these extra border-crossers refilled their tanks — about one extra trip per year per vehicle in B.C. — that would account for about a two per cent drop in annual gasoline consumption, or about one per cent of all petroleum fuels. Cross-border shopping cannot account for the large decline in fuel consumption since 2008.

Nickson further claims that the tax is not revenue-neutral because it costs a trucker more to fill his tank after the tax than before. Revenue neutrality refers to the impact on government finances. Provincial carbon tax revenues have been fully recycled (and then some) via tax cuts, primarily to individual and corporate income taxes. That does not mean that the carbon tax will be revenue-neutral for each and every British Columbian. Emissions-intensive industries and individuals with more carbon-intensive lifestyles typically will pay more than they get back, while those with lower emissions will save money. That financial incentive for conservation is the whole point of the tax.

Piling on misleading arguments, Nickson erroneously conflates the provincial government’s commitment to carbon neutrality via the Pacific Carbon Trust with the revenue-neutral carbon tax. The carbon tax applies to all fossil fuel purchases, including those by government. Separately, the carbon-neutral government policy mandates that public agencies purchase offsets for any remaining emissions. It is admittedly confusing that government agencies are paying for carbon emissions in both cases, but they are quite distinct policies. No carbon tax revenues flow to the Pacific Carbon Trust, nor to the other programs Nickson cites.

However improbably, Nickson does stumble onto a truth — at least partly. B.C.’s carbon tax shift was designed to lessen the impacts on the poor by recycling some of the tax revenues via a low-income tax credit. B.C.’s carbon tax thus was less regressive than most other jurisdictions’ carbon-reduction policies. However, the low-income tax credit did not keep up with annual increases in the tax from 2009 to 2012. The easy solution there is to adjust the tax credit. Doing so is particularly important since those with low incomes, who are responsible for the least emissions both in Canada and globally, are projected to pay the greatest price if we fail to act on climate change.

Op-eds provide a valuable outlet for debates about public policy. However, those debates invariably draw on both political ideology and facts. We may disagree about politics, but we should all strive to get the facts right.

Kathryn Harrison is a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.

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Reform needed before expanding coal shipments

Annual general meetings of organizations like Port Metro Vancouver are not usually lively events. Yet the port’s AGM June 4 drew roughly 200 citizens eager to discuss a proposal by Fraser Surrey Docks to export U.S. thermal coal.

In addition to concerns about the project itself — including release of toxic coal dust, increased rail traffic, and the contribution to global warming of up to 16 million tonnes per year of carbon dioxide — many speakers raised questions about the port’s handling of the proposal.

In response, the port offered its well-rehearsed arguments: We’ve consulted widely, our mandate is to facilitate trade, and the rest is not our job.

British Columbians deserve better.

First, a bit of context. In recent years, U.S. electricity production has shifted from coal to natural gas, yielding significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. However, U.S. coal producers now find themselves with a surplus that they are eager to deliver to Asian markets. With proposals for coal ports in western states encountering strong public opposition, the U.S. industry has turned to British Columbia.

Exports of thermal coal from Metro Vancouver increased 68 per cent from 2009 to 2012, stretching the capacity of existing facilities. Fraser Surrey Docks’ proposal thus is likely the first of many. Already, County Coal has committed to release details this month of its plans for a 20-million tonne per year coal port on the B.C. coast. Decisions on projects that will impact the economic and environmental future of our region demand thorough, transparent, and accountable deliberation.

The port’s public consultations have been deeply flawed. A one-page newsletter was distributed to households in the immediate vicinity of the proposed facility, but no effort was made to alert residents of other communities that would be impacted by increased rail and barge traffic. The governments of Vancouver, White Rock and Surrey, and the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health Authorities, all have raised concerns about the consultation process. Fraser Health’s chief medical health officer has called for a comprehensive health impact assessment before any decision is made.

Although Port Metro Vancouver is the public agency responsible for the decision, it has relied on Fraser Surrey Docks, a private company with a financial stake in the outcome, to conduct most public consultations. The newsletter circulated to households was prepared by the proponent, and, not surprisingly, was entirely reassuring. Last month’s open houses also were hosted by Fraser Surrey Docks, not the port.

Port representatives say they have no authority to conduct public hearings. Yet, there is nothing in the port’s “letters patent,” the document through which the federal government delegates authority to the port, that precludes public hearings.

The port also has adopted a narrow construction of its environmental authority. Port spokespersons regularly state that their mandate is only to facilitate trade, without acknowledging their equally important mandate “to operate with broad public support in the best interests of Canadians.” The Canada Marine Act, which governs port operations, identifies both promotion of trade and provision of a high level of safety and environmental protection as equal goals.

The port insists it has no authority to consider climate change. However, Section 7.1 of the port’s letters patent authorizes the Port to conduct environmental assessments, without restriction on the nature of the environmental impacts. Section 11.1 directs the port to comply with all international obligations and agreements. As Canada is a signatory to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, that section not only invites, but may even require, consideration of a project’s contribution to climate change.

The port’s narrow interpretation of its mandate is less surprising if one considers the composition of the board of directors. Fully seven of 11 members are appointed by cabinet based on nominations from port users, the list of which includes the coal industry. There is no provision for inclusion of environmental or public health experts, nor First Nations. Three seats are set aside for appointees of local and provincial governments, but strangely those board members cannot hold elected office, as if being democratically accountable reduces, rather than enhances, accountability and legitimacy.

In effect, the foxes are guarding the chicken coop. It is telling that the port itself is a member of the Coal Association of Canada, an organization that exists to promote the interests of an industry the port is supposed to regulate!

British Columbians deserve rigorous consultations conducted by a more representative and impartial Port Authority before decisions are made that will transform our region and the planet we pass on to our children.

Kathryn Harrison is a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.

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