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Canadian universities accelerate collective climate action

Investment management charters and international partnerships are just some of the ways universities are ramping up cross-sectoral efforts against climate change.


If you ask the presidents of three of Canada’s largest research universities what role they see for academic institutions in fighting climate change, their answers – like educating students, engaging in research and reducing campus energy consumption – aren’t surprising. But increasingly, how universities manage their financial investments has become an important part of the mix. And, in 2020, it’s just one of the areas where Canadian universities are coming together to accelerate progress through collective action.

“One of the problems I find with climate change is that many people feel powerless in front of that enormous issue. And the tendency when you have that kind of feeling is to say, ‘well, whatever I do is just a drop in the bucket,’” said McGill University principal Suzanne Fortier. “Whatever McGill does is just a drop in the bucket. I know that. But if McGill does it, Toronto does it, all Canadian universities, all institutions across the world, well, it’s no longer just a drop in the bucket.”

Three recent initiatives in particular demonstrate how universities are modelling cross-sectoral partnerships in the national, regional and global context. The first is a charter signed in June by 15 Canadian universities. Investing to Address Climate Change: A Charter for Canadian Universities builds on a growing recognition within the financial services sector that climate change poses not only environmental risks but investment risks, and commits signatories to reducing their carbon footprint through strategic investment practices. The charter calls for alignment with the UN-supported Principles of Responsible Investment, including a greater consideration of environmental, social and governance factors in investment decisions, active engagement to foster the disclosure of climate-related risks, and regular reporting on the carbon intensity of institutions’ investment portfolios.

Read also: Some universities are shifting their endowments to more low-carbon investments

“Universities have a responsibility to take all these kinds of concerns into account seriously,” said University of Toronto president, Meric Gertler, speaking to both environmental and fiduciary duty. “We thought that by inspiring a group of universities to sign on to a charter like this, that we might have bigger collective impact across our sector,” he said.

The charter builds on the existing climate change commitments of the 15 signatories, such as the construction of Canada’s largest urban geothermal field at U of T, or the retrofitting of McGill’s heritage buildings to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. The charter parallels these carbon-reduction strategies, expanding on global movements to divest from fossil fuel companies.

“Every university in Canada has a slightly different philosophy in terms of divestment or strategic investment to address climate change,” said University of British Columbia president Santa Ono, who sees the charter and other collective action groups as an opportunity for universities to not only act together, but learn from each other. “It’s really a perfect ecosystem to test different approaches,” he said.

For U of T and McGill, divestment alone would have had a fraction of the impact that committing to reducing carbon emissions across the entirety of their investment portfolios will have. McGill anticipates more than double the carbon footprint reductions from doing so and U of T projects a 40 percent reduction by 2030 versus the 13 percent that would come from fossil fuel divestment alone.

All three universities are also engaging in other collective efforts on climate change. In April, McGill joined the International Universities Climate Alliance as the only Canadian member so far in the group of 40 universities in 18 countries and six continents. Members in the alliance will share climate research in service of mobilizing the public, industry and policy-makers, and also coordinate on international initiatives like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

On June 30, Dr. Ono inherited the leadership of the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3), from now former University of California president Janet Napolitano. UBC is a founding member of the network of 22 North American research universities “committed to climate action and cross-sector collaboration.” Members, including U of T, interact at the executive, faculty and student level as well as on campus planning.

Dr. Ono described the importance of coalitions to address a problem of such magnitude, but continued that it must go even beyond that. “UC3 itself is going to have to interact with the U7+ group of universities, which is global. It’s going to have to interact with other consortia.”

Indeed, in 2019, McGill, U of T and UBC all became members of the U7+ Alliance of universities representing academic institutions from the G7 countries and beyond who see a key role for universities in advancing multilateral action on climate change and have committed to meeting annually in the context of the G7 process to do so. The University of Ottawa and Université de Montréal are also members.

One area both UC3 and the U7+ are committed to is encouraging students to develop interdisciplinary approaches and cross-sectoral relationships. Dr. Ono says that whatever bridges university coalitions are developing with sectors outside of academia, they must support students in creating parallel relationships through initiatives like UBC’s student-driven Climate Hub which aims to connect students with community stakeholders in climate change actions.

“Universities have [been] and have to continue to be examples, places where new ideas emerge that other sectors can replicate and scale up,” Dr. Ono said. But private companies are catching up, he added. “We can’t rest on our laurels. We can’t assume that we’re always leading the pack.”

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