Commentary  Invest in environmental accountability

It is no secret that Canada has an abysmal environmental record that needs to be reversed. McGill taking action on its environmentally destructive investments would be crucial in addressing what has become one of the most important issues of our generation. McGill styles itself as a leader among Canadian universities, but the lack of concern it exhibits for the environmental impact of its investments clearly shows otherwise. In 2010, McGill’s financial assets, bequests, and donations – managed by the Investment Committee of the Board of Governors (BoG) – held a market value of almost $850 million. But there is no structure in place within the BoG to monitor the environmental impact of these investments.

In fact, the only body that assesses anything other than the purely financial aspects of endowment investments is the BoG Committee to Advise on Social Responsibility, which is mandated to focus on issues of human health, safety, and basic freedoms. This committee has not met in over two years, and is purely reactive – someone from the McGill community must file a petition with over 300 signatures before the committee can take any form of action.

This weak and ineffective structure is a superficial attempt to hold the BoG accountable for their investment choices. In order for it to become effective, it must fulfill its mandate by meeting regularly and adding environmental responsibility to its purview.

Without adequate transparency and accountability, the McGill endowment has been invested in environmentally irresponsible ways. According to the Report on Endowment Performance in 2009-2010, $10 million were invested in commodity commitments, including “two North American natural resources funds of funds and one Canadian oil and gas fund.”

Even more worrying is the fact that McGill’s investment portfolio could include a number of environmentally degrading corporations, the names of which are not readily available to the McGill community. Investment managers hired by McGill could put money in things such as mutual funds, which could include oil and gas companies. Without any written commitment to the environment, McGill BoG members are free to make decisions without taking into account how those investments might contribute to environmental degradation.

By investing money into commodities such as oil and gas, McGill is providing both funding and legitimacy for those industries, thereby tacitly endorsing the viability of fossil fuels. However, the notion that continual reliance upon oil and gas is necessary, and that alternatives are unrealistic, is baseless and counterproductive. Human consumption of these finite resources is damaging the planet and contributing to a way of life that is not sustainable in the long term. We will have to learn to live without them eventually, and it is in our best interest to do so now.

Given the extreme environmental hazards posed by such industries, McGill should divest from all corporations linked to them. Not only will this weaken environmentally irresponsible companies financially, it will also serve to delegitimize them. By taking such steps, McGill would put the environmental impacts of such companies in the public consciousness, and would, therefore, encourage others to divest from them as well.

If our administration wishes to live up to the leadership position it claims, they must begin by taking concrete steps to increase the accountability and transparency of their financial stakes and by considering the environmental impact of where endowment money is invested. Our University must step up.