On Wednesday morning, Principal Suzanne Fortier met with student media for a roundtable interview in the James Administration Building for the first time in several years. Masked and socially distanced, Principal Fortier gave an opening statement about the state of higher education in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and fielded questions from the Bull and Bear, the Daily, Le Délit, and the Tribune.
One of the most pressing issues facing communities and institutions is climate change, and McGill has been subjected to increasing pressures to fully divest from their fossil fuel investments. As part of the roundtable interview, the Bull and Bear asked Principal Fortier about the university’s philosophy and strategy on climate change and divestment.
The Bull and Bear: In your opening statement you talked about the idea of the terra sapiens and our role in relation to the world. Could you speak to the university’s philosophy on climate change and the role the university has locally, federally, and internationally in combating it? Could you also speak to the issue of lacking fossil fuel divestment?
Principal Fortier: “Everyone in society—every person, every institution, every government—has to play an important role with regard to climate change and sustainability. This is inevitable: each one of us has a responsibility. Here, we have a sustainability strategy … we’re looking at every aspect of what we do.
We’re about to introduce a new course on sustainability that will be available to everyone that can count for credit; it will go to the Senate this term. … It’s climate literacy—everyone needs to know about it.
On the operations side, we have a very aggressive plan to reduce our carbon footprint. Our net zero goal is 2040, which is 10 years ahead of most people. We’re transforming our energy systems at McGill away from oil and gas; it’s expensive, but it is important, so we’re putting money in that.
We have a pool of 2 billion [dollars] in our endowment [and] we’ve adopted a decarbonization strategy. So, we are removing assets in the carbon-generating industry, [which] includes the fossil fuel industry, as well as the cement industry: the two biggest culprits. But there’s many, many industries—even the digital industry has a large carbon footprint. So, we’re removing assets, we have a very aggressive goal, and we are investing in what is called impact investing [in] those industries that are bringing sustainability options.”
We’re not divesting in quotation marks, we’re divesting in reality.
Activist groups such as Divest McGill have long been campaigning for McGill’s immediate divestment from all fossil fuels. Fortier went on to clarify the differences between McGill’s climate change strategies and the student body’s call for divestment.
“It’s interesting, the language [that] is used: we’re not divesting, because some people say we need to divest, which means removing all investment in the 200 companies that have been targeted. We’re not divesting in quotation marks, we’re divesting in reality. In the language of investment, we’re divesting, we’re removing assets.
One thing I should say is that we don’t invest directly. We invest through managers, and our managers are 99 per cent, I believe, ESG compliant. Where we can, where we have targeted investment in carbon producing companies, we [have] asked them to remove our investment.”
Fortier also provided an update on how McGill was faring in terms of approaching its target goals.
“Right now, I would say that we are over-achieving our targets. Of the … 200 or so companies, I think we’re below 1 per cent. [But] some of the investments we made, we made 5 years ago, and we committed to making an investment. It doesn’t get spent right away: they’ll take our investment at different times, and once you’ve made the commitment you’ve made the commitment. It’s not like tomorrow you can say, ‘I don’t like this and I’m getting out of it.’ I think we have a very good, very responsible plan to decarbonize our portfolio and I think we’re doing well.
When we started in impact investing there weren’t that many offerings on the market and the ones that existed were not yet proven. … But that’s changing much more rapidly, which is great for us. There are many more ways to invest in securities that are decarbonizing, that will report on their decarbonization. Now we’re better equipped to invest in impact investing; in fact, just recently, we made another investment in that sector.
It’s complicated [but] it’s moving in the right direction.”