Divestment not the answer: UBC prof

While students at more than 20 Canadian universities – including the University of Manitoba – are engaged in campaigns pressuring their campuses to divest from fossil fuel industries, a University of British Columbia (UBC) business professor characterizes the movement as misguided.

Werner Antweiler – an associate professor at UBC’s Sauder school of business – called the campaign’s focus on demonizing the fossil fuel industry “greenwashing” and said activists should be calling for a carbon tax.

“I’m skeptical about the divestment campaign in the sense that the fossil fuel companies provide a good that is […] in high demand,” he said, noting energy companies are “major investors in wind farms” and other alternative energies.

“I drive a car, I put gasoline into my tank,” he said. “So it seems like when I’m pointing a finger at those companies, there’s four fingers pointing back at me.

“I feel like this is not the right way to change things.”

In the spring of 2015, the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) formally endorsed the Divest Manitoba campaign to have the U of M divest from its $64-million stake in the oil, gas, and coal sectors.

In February 2015, when his own faculty was preparing to vote on a divestment motion, Antweiler published a blog post titled “Fossil Fuel divestment at UBC: feat or folly?” in which he argued the movement is borne out of frustration toward a lack of government leadership on the environment file.

In the post, he called the campaign a symbolic success – “a cathartic purging of our links to the purveyors of carbon.”

He told the Manitoban that the efforts would be better served pressuring provincial and federal governments to institute a polluter-pay regime.

“The real effort has to be on helping to put a price on carbon,” he said. “That is the only policy that has the right long-term impact that we need.”

“We need to do more,” he added, “and we need to do it in a fashion that will not hurt business but is just to send the right signal to move out of carbon-intensive forms of an economy to less carbon-intensive ones.”

In November 2014, Dalhousie University’s board of governors rejected a drive to divest from fossil fuels, arguing the move would hurt investment back into the school’s programs.

Concordia University is the only Canadian campus so far to adopt a measure of the campaign, agreeing to institute a $5-million fund toward investing in sustainable energy, while falling short of actually divesting its current fossil fuel holdings.

Critics argue divesting university endowments away from the energy sector is a complicated endeavour that won’t have a tangible impact on how oil, gas, and coal companies operate but will hurt the returns generated through investments.

Antweiler, however, said a divested portfolio wouldn’t fare much different than one including oil, gas, and coal investments over a long, 20-year timeline.

The difficulty, he said, is that university endowments are invested heavily in pooled funds managed by investment companies. The group investments allow the endowments to meet their mandate of a diverse portfolio, he said, noting a fossil fuel-free investing device isn’t readily available.

“I’m not particularly concerned about the performance issue,” he said. “What is much more of an issue for endowment funds is the investment vehicles that are available to them.”

“That’s essentially the difficulty that endowments face,” he added. “That the vehicles available to them to pursue these policies are actually quite limited or non-existent.”

What it boils down to, he argued, is the need for stronger leadership from the federal level.

“If we see leadership on the climate portfolio coming from Ottawa, then I wonder what is the divestment going to do,” he said.

“Do we really believe it makes a difference? I think the answer is no. It will not change the policies of these companies. They will not have any trouble securing financing for what they do and in a way it’s ostracizing the companies for the wrong reasons.”