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Fossil Fuels Divestment Fever: Canadian Students, Doctors Launch New Campaign

Tyler Hamilton's picture

Tyler Hamilton is a business columnist for the Toronto Star, Canada's largest daily newspaper. In addition to this Clean Break blog, Tyler writes a weekly column of the same name that...

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  • Mar 29, 2013

FossilFreeCanadaLogoCalls in the United States for universities to divest their fossil-fuel holdings are starting to spread into Canada, where students and doctors are beginning to speak out.

Students from across the country are taking part Wednesday in what’s being called Fossil Fools Day, described as the first national day of action for the Fossil Free Canada campaign, an initiative being led by the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition.

More than a dozen Canadian university campuses are planning marches and rallies in an effort to urge their university administrations to divest their endowments from fossil fuel and pipeline companies. Many already have active campaigns.

“To date four campuses in the United States have divested, and administrations at McGill University and the University of New Brunswick-Fredericton are reviewing divestment,” according to a statement from the youth coalition.

Environmental activist and journalist Bill McKibben, through his organization, is leading U.S. efforts. They began last November with McKibben’s 21-city “Do The Math” tour, which spread a simple message: avoiding the worst effects of climate change means leaving most of the world’s proven reserves of fossil fuels in the ground.

McKibben argues that society can’t afford to release more than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels if we are to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C. The problem is that fossil-fuel companies have what amounts to 2,795 gigatons in reserve, and they’re expecting all of it to be burned.

Those surplus reserves are being called “unburnable carbon.” The International Energy Agency estimates that on our current path the total allowable global carbon budget could be exhausted by 2017, assuming the world sticks with the 2 degree C scenario.

The reality is beginning to irk financial giants such as HSBC, which recently warned investors that oil and gas giants such as BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Norway’s Statoil are at risk of losing up to 60 per cent of their market value if the carbon on their balance sheets – carbon that they and their shareholders are expecting to see burned – becomes unburnable and therefore unsellable. The Institute of Actuaries, Mercer and KPMG are among others who have raised red flags.

McKibben’s message is beginning to sink in. The student bodies of more than 300 post-secondary campuses in the United States have joined’s Go Fossil Free campaign, and so far a handful of small colleges have committed to divesting. Many more are studying it, at the strong urgings of their student bodies. McKibben estimates that universities and colleges in the U.S. hold endowments worth well over $400 million, but beyond that even cities and states are taking notice and feeling the pressure of what can be described now as a global movement.

In Canada, where divestment pressure has been slower to emerge, the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition launched its own McKibben-style campaign in early February. Cameron Fenton, national director of the coalition, said many universities in Canada are doing great work around sustainability, such as making campuses “greener,” but their investments haven’t followed the same path. “Building a sustainable campus that is bankrolling and profiting from climate change is a Pyrrhic victory at best,” Fenton wrote in a recent commentary in the Toronto Star.

A new study from the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that Canada’s proven reserves of oil, bitumen, gas and coal are equivalent to 91 gigatons of carbon dioxide, or 18 per cent of the global carbon budget, based on an assessment of 114 fossil fuel companies operating in Canada. Add in probable reserves and the number swells to 174 gigatons, while possible reserves sit at 1,192 gigatons, or more than double the world’s carbon budget.

Assuming conservatively that Canada’s share of the global carbon budget is 20 gigatons, this would imply, according to the study, that 78 per cent of proven reserves and 89 per cent of proven and probable reserves must be left in the ground. “Canada is experiencing a carbon bubble that must be strategically deflated in the move to a clean energy economy,” according to the policy alternatives.

“Because public valuation of companies largely ignores big picture climate realities, there is a systemic risk inherent in the fossil fuel extraction and production industry,” it concluded. “Our analysis finds that Canadian financial markets have failed to consider climate risk. The shock associated with coming global efforts to manage carbon could leave key sectors such as pension funds vulnerable.”

Canadian doctors, meanwhile, are reminding citizens that investments aren’t the only risk. The health of Canadians are being dramatically impacted by the burning of coal and other fossil fuels, and that alone is reason to divest, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) argued on Wednesday. The association pointed to a study it co-released that day from the Pembina Institute on the health impacts of coal-fired electricity generation in Alberta. Coal power’s contribution to asthma and other respiratory/cardiovascular illnesses in the province costs about $300 million annually because of increased visits to hospitals and emergency rooms, the report found.

CAPE put out a statement Tuesday urging all Canadian healthcare providers and their professional associations, including the Canadian Medical Association, to immediately “freeze” all new investment in oil, gas, coal, and pipeline companies. Within five years, they want these organizations to divest from direct ownership and commingled funds that include fossil-fuel public equities and corporate bonds.

“Similar strategies have been used in the past by medical organizations in the fight to hold the tobacco industry accountable for the health effects of its products,” CAPE said in a statement.

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John DeCicco's picture
John DeCicco on Mar 29, 2013

Although undoubtedly well intended, the anti-fossil-fuel initiatives hailed here are tragically misguided given the urgency of the climate crisis. Too many leaders of the fossil fuel industry do indeed block constructive initiatives for rational climate policy with their own misguided lobbying. But that's not a good reason for those concerned about the climate to confuse quickly cutting net carbon impacts with quickly getting off of fossil fuels.

In the short run, society may need to use marginally more fossil fuel to power carbon sequestration projects. Liquid hydrocarbon fuels have been the world's number one source of energy; Canada's oil sands are but one resource being exploited to meet the growing global demand. In addition to redoubling efforts to improve end-use efficiency, the most cost-effective option for the foreseeable future is to balance the CO2 emitted by liquid fuel combustion with reforestation, forest protection and CO2-sequestering enhanced oil recovery. Those options will protect the climate sooner and less expensively than the costly and ecologically disastrous rush to so-called renewable fuels in the form of ethanol and other biofuels that too many greens have naively embraced. Other renewables such as photovoltaics and wind have important roles to play, but can't be scaled quickly enough to avoid a major push to sequester carbon.

It's not a question of fossil vs. renewable; rather, it's the carbon (stupid!), to paraphrase the slogan of a successful US campaign a few years back. The passion and enthusiasm of students and others deeply concerned about climate would be much better directed at establishing strict GHG emissions regulations and effective carbon management programs. Of course, retrograde fossil industry leaders and politicians beholden to them should be taken to task for their anti-climate-protection stance. But for the critical campaign to protect the climate, clarity of purpose is of crucial importance. 

John DeCicco's picture
John DeCicco on Mar 29, 2013

I'm well aware of those limitations. The issue is what should be done now, to get started on reducing net CO2 going into the atmosphere, and it's important to not confuse the immediate steps with ultimate long-term solutions. The latter are not only unknown, but unknowable. Much damage to sound thinking has been done by imagining future end points (such as a world fueled by renewables as we know them today) and then presuming that the best way forward is to work toward those imaginary end points. 

Sequestration options, both geological and terrestrial (and especially the latter) are accessible today at scales sufficient for a meaningful start at climate mitigation. The fossil fuel industry has a role to play in providing and financing these essential steps. Of course approrpriate renewables should be pursued as well, but my point is that the right mix of real steps forward can only be found by focusing on the carbon balance itself, not by railing against fossil fuels in the name of reaching an imaginary world. 

Check out the work of another fellow academic, Mark Jaccard, on Sustainable Fossil Fuels


dennis baker's picture
dennis baker on Mar 30, 2013

Divestment yes  by all means, but its the reinvestment of these funds that will win the day.

In my opinion

We need to replace the fossil fuel power plants, the primary source of GHG. Now! 

At a scale required to accomplish this task : 

Ethanol starves people : not a viable option. 

Fracking releases methane : not a viable option. 

Cellulose Bio Fuel Uses Food Land : not a viable option 

Solar uses food land : Not a viable option 

Wind is Intermittent : Not a viable option 

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