By Riley Hill (he/him), teacher, Vancouver
For many of us in BC, 2021 was a wake-up call. The heatwave that ripped through our province shattered temperature records and killed 595 people. The town of Lytton burned to the ground, and approximately one billion sea animals baked in the heat. Another smoky summer followed—the third-worst fire season on record, behind only 2017 and 2018. Instead of relief, the fall brought floods that crippled highways and stranded communities.
After decades of inaction, 2021 marked the year when the effects of climate change became impossible to ignore. With this in mind, you might be surprised to learn that a chunk of your paycheck goes to organizations guaranteeing these problems will grow worse.
Extreme weather events are becoming more severe and frequent because of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, 73% of which come from burning fossil fuels for energy. To stop the world’s rapid warming and avoid worsening disasters, we must replace the energy in our homes, vehicles, buildings and industries with carbon-free sources like solar, wind, nuclear, and geothermal energy as quickly as possible.
Because climate change requires us to wean ourselves off fossil fuels in the coming decades, the International Energy Agency recently warned that to maintain any chance of limiting warming to below two degrees, we need to begin the transition to carbon-free energy and stop investing in fossil fuels immediately. However, our pension fund continues to send money to companies working to ensure we use fossil fuels for generations to come.
Every public school teacher in BC is an investor in fossil fuels. Our pensions finance companies responsible for extracting, processing, transporting, and selling oil and natural gas. The money we set aside for retirement goes to Suncor, the largest oil producer in the Athabasca Oil Sands; Vermillion Energy, an oil and gas company with global operations; pipeline companies like TC Energy and Enbridge; natural gas utilities such as Fortis, Enmax, and Epcor; and gasoline retailers like Parkland Corporation.
In addition to the money these companies spend on fossil fuel projects, some work to slow the adoption of carbon-free energy. For example, Enbridge and Fortis are part of the so-called Consortium to Combat Electrification, an industry group dedicated to dissuading consumers from heating their homes with electricity instead of natural gas. This means our money isn’t only funding these companies’ projects but their propaganda as well.
It works like this: the money deducted from your pay stub is pooled in the Teachers’ Pension Plan, then a separate organization called the British Columbia Investment Management Corporation (BCI) decides where to invest. They play this role for several other public pension funds in the province. BCI does invest in companies that produce clean energy, but some of our money also goes to fossil fuel companies because that’s where BCI puts it.
BCI justifies investing in fossil fuels in two ways. First, they say that by giving money to these companies, they can push them to reduce their emissions. By having a seat at the table, they argue, they will influence fossil fuel companies to make better environmental decisions.
The second justification is that BCI has emission-reduction targets for their public equity funds. They have had some success, as the emission intensity of these funds, meaning the total emissions per million invested, have gone down.
However, BCI does not have reduction targets for its private equity funds, which have much higher emissions than their public equity funds, or for its real estate funds.
So BCI, which manages a handful of public pensions in the province, justifies investing in companies that produce the products driving climate change by claiming they can push them to make better environmental decisions and setting emission-reduction targets for part of their portfolio.
But there is another option. Each year, more organizations are deciding to divest from fossil fuels altogether. Divestment would mean cutting off money from our pension fund to companies involved in the fossil fuel business. BCI opposes this approach, but perhaps it’s time we consider it.
In Canada, the University of British Columbia has committed to divesting its endowment from fossil fuels by 2030. The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Quebec’s equivalent of BCI, has committed to divesting by the end of 2022 and cutting the carbon footprint of their investments in half by 2030.
Disinvestment like this is happening all over the world. In 2018, New York City committed to divesting all municipal public pensions from fossil fuels. They followed through in January 2021 with an initial sell-off of $4 billion worth of fossil fuel investments.
Municipal governments are taking similar measures in Belfast, Copenhagen, Melbourne, Minneapolis, Paris, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Stockholm, Sydney, Cape Town, and Denver, to name a few. A huge number of religious, professional, and financial institutions are also following suit.
When considering our pension fund’s impact on the planet, we need to ask ourselves two questions. First, should we be concerned about how the money we set aside for retirement contributes to climate change? And second, if the answer is yes, what makes more sense: investing in fossil fuel companies while trying to convince them to abandon their core business or divesting from them altogether?
As teachers, we can’t rest on what we do in the classroom. I first learned about climate change in elementary school in 1999. As countries like the United Kingdom and Germany have made considerable strides to reduce their emissions, Canada’s are right where they were in 1990. In fact, emissions from oil and gas have ballooned to constitute a quarter of our national emissions, negating progress we’ve made in other sectors.
Climate change has been understood since the day I was born and the problem has only grown worse. More than half of global emissions since the industrial revolution have occurred during my lifetime. We’ve taught kids about the seriousness of climate change for a long time, while we invest in ensuring its worst effects come to pass.
Climate change can be so overwhelming that it’s easy to fall into despair. But the truth is our world is made and remade each day by our decisions. The world we live in is the result of decisions made yesterday, and the world we will live in tomorrow depends on our choices today.
The billions of dollars pooled in our pension fund are building the world that we, our children, our grandchildren, and our students will soon live in. What kind of world do you want?
It’s time the BCTF had a serious conversation about following the lead of other organizations and taking immediate steps to disinvest our pensions from fossil fuels.
To learn about the Teachers’ Pension Plan’s approach to responsible investing, click here.