According to Fossil Free, an organization that promotes divestment, just 26 universities around the world have committed to rid their endowments of fossil fuels.
UNC students voted overwhelmingly in 2013 to ask the University to divest from coal. Then-Chancellor Holden Thorp promised to make UNC coal-free by 2020. That goal isn’t likely to be met.
On March 31, Syracuse University announced a commitment to divest its $1.18 billion endowment from fossil fuel companies, following intense urging by Divest SU, Syracuse’s student organization committed to promoting sustainable energy.
“Syracuse has a long record of supporting responsible environmental stewardship and good corporate citizenship, and we want to continue that record,” said Chancellor Kent Syverud in a released statement. “Formalizing our commitment to not invest directly in fossil fuels is one more way we do that.”
About 6.5 percent of UNC’s $2.7 billion endowment is invested in energy. In September, the Board of Trustees approved a non-binding resolution to target clean energy companies for future investments, which the UNC Sierra Coalition regarded as a promising start.
Rachel Woods, a member of the UNC Sierra Coalition, said she feels the board’s move was just that — a start.
“I think whether or not we divest from coal will not happen overnight, or at my time at UNC. It will have to be carried by other students,” Woods said.
Universities around the world have shown similar apprehension. On March 15, the University of Oxford in England announced it would defer a decision to divest from fossil fuels until May.
John Clements, former financial director at Oxford, said the committee did not announce how it came to that decision, but he believes the reasons were financial.
“Let’s be honest; if it could be proven that divestment from fossil fuel corporations would produce a higher rate of return, everybody would divest tomorrow,” he said.
Clements said most endowment portfolios at universities in America and Europe have included fossil fuel companies because of their high earnings, and renewable energy companies have not yet had the same level of returns.
“It is really a matter of balancing the risk of a short term loss — divestment — against the risk of a longer term loss, or collapse of fossil fuel stocks,” he said.
Patrick Conway, a UNC economics professor, said characteristics of the crude oil market make it difficult for endowment managers to consider divestment.
“A university endowment choosing to divest their stocks in oil companies would probably incur a large capital loss by selling at this moment,” he wrote in an email.
UNC’s energy portfolio earned a 17.7 percent return over the past decade.
Still, Clements said universities should prioritize ethical implications instead of rate-of-return.
“I believe there is now plenty of evidence to show that the long-term performance of these portfolios will only benefit from a planned move away from fossil fuels of all kinds,” he said.