Op-ed: TCA’s New Year’s resolutions on carbon neutrality, fossil fuel divestment

The start of a new year offers space for reflection on the past year and airing of hopes for the coming year. In September, Harvard announced that it would stop investing in fossil fuels and wind down its existing investments in them. At the same time, BU announced that it would divest from fossil fuels. The COP26 summit of October and November further emphasized the urgency of the climate crisis. In December, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu signed an ordinance requiring the City of Boston to divest from fossil fuel industries by the end of 2025. Also in December, Tufts’ Chief Investment Officer Craig W. Smith presented the Fossil Fuel Divestment and Tufts Endowment Webinar as part of the Path to Carbon Neutrality Webinar Series, organized by the Tufts Office of Sustainability. 

As a new member of the student-run organization Tufts Climate Action, I am very impressed by the efforts of past student activists who, since about 2012, have pressured the administration to divest from fossil fuels. Their efforts have led to the formation of the Responsible Investment Advisory Group, composed of trustees, faculty, staff and students. In January 2021, a year ago last month, the RIAG released a set of recommendations to the Board of Trustees. Since these recommendations were adopted, Tufts has committed to investing $18 million in renewable energy projects and companies that provide clean technologies and services. This is a great start. 

There is great potential to positively impact the energy sector’s transition from its reliance on fossil fuels to renewables if we, as a nation, push for increased investment in renewable energy and clean technologies. Basic economic principles say that supply will intersect with demand at a point of equilibrium; by continuing to support a viable and cheaper alternative to fossil fuels by investing in renewable energy, demand for fossil fuels will decrease and the fossil fuel industries will become less profitable, thus creating an incentive for mitigating these harmful practices. 

Tufts can tangibly reduce its own demand for fossil fuels by speeding up the plans to make its campuses carbon neutral. Currently, there is a goal in place for the Medford/Somerville campus to be carbon neutral by 2050. Despite the commendable efforts, this target date is far too distant to effectively address an urgent crisis like climate change. The deadline is already upon us, so we must act with urgency. 

American University’s recent actions should serve as an example of a more adequate response to the climate crisis. In 2018, it became the first urban campus and first research university to achieve carbon neutrality. The university used a three-part strategy that involved reducing emissions, investing in renewable energy on and off campus and purchasing carbon offsets for sources of emissions that are not able to be eradicated with current technologies. In this way, investments in renewable energy and clean technologies become part of the larger goal to leverage the power of a university to do its part in tackling climate change and inspire other institutions to follow suit. 

Divestment from the fossil fuels sector and investment in renewable energy and clean, ethical technologies are two sides of the same coin. On the divestment side of the coin, we talk about direct investments — direct ownership in an asset — and indirect investments — investment in a mixed asset portfolio managed by a third party. Because of the way Tufts manages its endowment, the university is better able to control its direct holdings, which comprise 1% of Tufts’ investments. Therefore, the investment office should create a long-term goal to divest from all direct holdings in natural gas and oil by a certain date. The goal should be backed up by a detailed plan consisting of short-term steps to reach that goal. 

When the RIAG meets again in one to four years — between 2023 and 2026 — it will evaluate Tufts’ further progress toward its goals and establish next steps. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, more frequent RIAG assessments can move Tufts to make greater progress, faster. In addition, the investment office should update its dashboard with more graphs breaking down Tufts’ exposure to natural gas and oil companies and its investments in renewable energy companies. The investment office should also post graphs showing percent returns correlated to Tufts’ portfolio exposures. This kind of information would provide greater transparency about progress toward the RIAG’s goals and facilitate further progress by putting into perspective the opportunity for improvement. 

In order to emphasize the collective sentiments of the student body on this issue, I urge readers to read TCA’s proposed Statement of Environmental Principles and sign the petition for its adoption by the university. As students, we hold collective power to encourage effective, timely actions towards mitigating the climate crisis. It is imperative that everyone in our community plays a role in advocating for a cleaner, more sustainable future for our environment. TCA welcomes any students to attend its meetings on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. in the Terrace Room. 


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