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Group backed by student fed—but issue isn’t that simple, says prof

Photo courtesy of Climate Action Network International

Investing in our future might means divesting from fossil fuels, according to a student group that is gearing up to lobby the University of Ottawa to go fossil fuel-free.

The group, called Fossil Free uOttawa, launched an online petition last fall that asks the university “to respond to the seriousness of climate change by immediately freezing any new investment into the 200 largest publicly traded fossil fuel companies.” So far, it has accrued more than 500 signatures.

“While our university’s divestment alone may not cause significant damage to these companies financially, the declaration that ‘we will not be a part of this’ will send a strong symbolic message,” said Megan Bowers, a third-year political science student and one of the group’s organizers.

Nicole Desnoyers, vice-president of services and communications of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO), strongly supports the campaign.

“Considering that we have seen major efforts and victories from students for a more sustainable campus, I believe this is a natural next step towards having an environmentally just university,” she said.

Desnoyers said she’s impressed with the student support for the campaign. The main obstacle, she said, is getting the Board of Governors (BOG) to notice them and take the students’ demands seriously.

When the group approached the BOG last year to present a motion for the university to look into the feasibility of divestment, their requests “were at first ignored and then dismissed,” according to Bowers.

The University of Ottawa is looking into the request and “will take into consideration all of the implications of such an approach,” according to spokesperson Caroline Milliard.

“The university is in the process of formalizing its approach to responsible investment through the development of a policy statement,” she added.

According to Milliard, the university plans to discuss a “proposed responsible investment policy” with the Pension Fund Investment Committee and the Finance and Treasury Committee in the upcoming months.

Economics professor Gilles Grenier said the issue isn’t as simple as the student group makes it out to be.

“The world is going to need fossil fuels for quite a long time, especially the less-developed countries,” said Grenier, listing India and China as examples.

These countries have grown exponentially in the past few decades, and so have their energy demands, said Grenier. “By refusing to invest in fossil fuels, we are telling them that we do not want them to reach standards of living that are similar to ours,” he said.

Fossil Free uOttawa aims to collect 5,000 signatures by December. “By targeting our university for divestment, we are focusing our efforts on a goal that is both attainable and that will have a real impact,” said Bowers.

Divestment hit headlines after a charity run by the Rockefeller family announced a $50-billion divestment from fossil fuel companies on the eve of the United Nations Climate Summit in New York City in September.

More than 100 divestment campaigns are ongoing in Canada and the United States. A major victory for anti-fossil fuel campaigns happened at Stanford University in May, when the administration agreed to cut all investments of endowment funds from coal companies.

Here on campus, the student group hopes to soon add divestment from fossil fuels to the U of O’s list of sustainability achievements.

This year, the U of O was the seventh Canadian university to be designated a “fair trade campus” by Fairtrade Canada, meaning all non-franchised businesses on campus sell certified fair-trade coffee, tea, and hot chocolate.

In 2010, the U of O was among the first wave of Canadian universities to ban the sale of bottled water on campus.

“Students fought to become a bottled-water-free campus and we became the first in Ontario to win that victory,” said Desnoyers. “I believe it is very possible for us to become the first Ontarian university to divest (from fossil fuels).”