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Princeton to divest from some sectors of the fossil fuel industry

<h5>Divest Princeton holds a rally in April 2021.</h5>
<h6>Justin Cai / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Divest Princeton holds a rally in April 2021.
Justin Cai / The Daily Princetonian

Following over a year of deliberation, the University will conditionally divest from certain elements of the fossil fuel industry.

On May 27, the University Board of Trustees announced that Princeton will divest and disassociate from the thermal coal and tar sands segments of the fossil fuel industry, as well as companies currently involved in climate disinformation. The University will also work towards making its $26.6 billion endowment carbon neutral.

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The combustion of thermal coal produces significantly more carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels. Likewise, the extraction and production process of tar sands oil produces significantly higher emissions than crude oil. Businesses involved in the thermal coal and tar sands sectors will be exempt from dissociation only provided that they are compliant with a soon-to-be-established University standard for greenhouse gas emissions.

Dissociation from certain companies based on the set criteria would also apply to research partnerships, though the University announcement indicates that dissociation would still permit partnerships “aimed at improving a company’s conduct or standards so that dissociation is no longer necessary.”

“These steps, taken by the University’s Board of Trustees, are the result of a thoughtful process around the question of fossil fuel dissociation that included input from stakeholders across the campus community,” the Office of Communications wrote in the announcement.

The University at large aims to attain net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2046, as laid out in its pre-existing Sustainability Action Plan. However, a target date for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within the endowment has yet to be determined. Likewise, interim check-in points have yet to be set.

In order to take administrative actions towards the new strategy, the Board of Trustees will determine “what expert input is needed to establish, implement and sustain actionable criteria” for dissociation from oil and gas assets and companies involved in climate disinformation.

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Additionally, the University intends to examine its endowment to determine its holistic carbon footprint. The committee will then advise the University on how to “reduce the aggregate harmful climate impact of Princeton’s direct and indirect holdings.”

With this announcement, the University becomes the one of the last Ivy League institutions to announce steps to decarbonize its endowment. 

Over 60 educational institutions in the United States have at least partially divested from the fossil fuel industry, according to Fossil Free. Rutgers was the first New Jersey university to completely divest from fossil fuels in early March.

Within the Ivy League, Cornell University announced a moratorium on new investments in fossil fuels in May 2020, Brown University is selling its direct investments and managed funds focused on fossil fuels as of March 2020, and Columbia University announced it would not directly invest in publicly-traded oil and gas companies this past January — though the institution may make exceptions for companies with credible net-zero plans.

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Yale also set standards for a partial divestment in April in a similar manner to the University’s plans — with guidelines that prohibit investment in companies that produce fossil fuels with high levels of emissions relative to the energy supplied like tar sands or thermal coal, undermine government policies on climate change, or provide inaccurate information about climate science. 

The University of Pennsylvania announced over a year ago that it would no longer have direct investments in thermal coal or tar sands, the same high-carbon sectors the University will dissociate from, and recently announced a goal of having a net-zero endowment by 2050. 

Harvard has also committed to making its endowment carbon neutral by 2050, a timeline some critics have deemed “insufficient,” while Dartmouth has not made any direct divestment commitment — though a spokesperson recently told The Dartmouth that the institution’s endowment has no direct holdings in any fossil fuel companies.

The Board of Trustees’ decision was reached after the CPUC Resources Committee, a body of faculty, undergraduate students, graduate students, and staff members created to “consider questions of general policy concerning the procurement and management of the University’s financial resources,” found evidence for all three criteria used to evaluate dissociation — sustained campus interest, investments in direct contradiction with a central University value, and consensus on how to respond within the University community. The Committee published its findings and recommendations in an early May report.

The announcement also came after years of advocacy on the issue of fossil fuel divestment. A 2016 petition by Princeton Sustainable Investment Initiative encouraged the University to divest from direct and indirect holdings of fossil fuel companies and prohibit new financial relationships with fossil fuel companies. In 2019, the activist coalition Divest Princeton emerged and began pushing alumni to cease donations to the University until it divested from the industry. The group then delivered a formal petition calling for divestment to the steps of Nassau Hall in February 2020. They spearheaded a related Undergraduate Student Government (USG) referendum in November 2020, in addition to continued organizing on campus.

While the University announcement does not represent the complete divestment from the industry that Divest Princeton had called for, the group’s leadership still considers the conditional dissociation to be beneficial.

“To the more than 2250 who signed No Donations Until Divestment, to former student organizers for divestment at Princeton, to the broader movement for climate justice around the world, together we have moved Princeton in the right direction,” representatives of Divest Princeton wrote in an email following the University decision.

Divest Princeton leadership plans to continue its advocacy efforts and to push the University to set a definitive timeline for rendering the endowment carbon neutral. According to the email, the group will push for its members and climate experts to “have a seat at the table,” as well as calling for “deadlines” and “a meaningful definition of ‘net-zero.’” 

“We will need to make sure that timeframes are ambitious and that the committee members are committed to climate action,” the group wrote.

Additionally, the group’s leaders have promised to push for rigorous screening of fossil-fuel companies for evidence of climate disinformation and an end to what the group described as Princeton’s “greenwashing” of companies — referring to the idea that the University’s collaboration with certain fossil fuel companies may give companies false credibility in the realm of sustainability.  

“As well as being critical of the announcement, it is important to take a moment to recognize that this is a significant moment in Princeton’s history,” the Divest Princeton organizers added.  

“We have all worked so hard on this, building on the organizing from activists from Princeton and around the world,” the organizers wrote. “Now, we must push Princeton to go the distance.”

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