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Pitt Pledges To Divest From Private Fossil Fuel Investments By 2035; Students Say It’s Not Enough

Pitt Fossil Free Coalition
The billboard in South Oakland.

The University of Pittsburgh Ad Hoc Committee on Fossil Fuels released a report on February 19 outlining its plans to fully divest from private fossil fuel investments by 2035. The move follows the university’s establishment of the committee in Junepledging to take more steps toward sustainability in the future, including a commitment to become carbon neutral by 2037.  

Fossil fuel divestment has been a topic of discussion for years as dozens of universities and companies try to do their part to decrease greenhouse gas emissions from coal, oil, and natural gas. Divestment can be as broad as slowly phasing out private investments, or as narrow as ensuring campus buses are eco-friendly, according to Carnegie Mellon University finance professor, Burton Hollifield.

“It depends on what you define as fully divest. Does that mean you’re not going to invest in a company that drives trucks, unless the trucks are eco-friendly?” Hollifield asked. “It will take some time to do this, and it’s not as clear cut as it seems.”

The committee has responded to input, including two public forums and interviews with subject-matter experts, but members of the Pitt community say they’ve been calling for this action for almost a decade. 

The Pitt Fossil Free Coalition, a student-led organization, recently unveiled a bright orange billboard in South Oakland demanding the Board of Trustees divest its $4.3 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry. Members say the billboard came in response to the committee’s failure to release the full report in January as it had initially pledged. 

Prior to the establishment of the committee, students held on-campus protests and an occupation of the Cathedral of Learning, where they slept for nearly two weeks. 

The university Board of Trustees held its winter meeting on Friday where the Ad Hoc Committee discussed the report's findings and what the future of fossil fuel divestment would look like for the university. The report found that university holdings in fossil fuels have dropped by 42% in the last five years, with 5.8% of the university’s current endowment still invested in fossil fuels. 

The committee found that continued fossil fuel investment leads to increasing risk of lower returns for the university’s broader economic future. As a result, the university is pledging to fully divest from private fossil fuel investments by 2035. 

Committee chair Dawne Hickton, says the group looked into divesting earlier than 2035, but found the university would suffer a significant economic loss in doing so.

“It’s a complicated type of investment and because set time frames are a feature of many private investments the university would take a significant financial loss if it were to sell off faster in the secondary markets,” Hickton said during the meeting.

While global market trends show that fossil fuel investments are becoming less attractive, the process for any large scale institution to fully divest from them can take years.  

“Of course, you can’t just say tomorrow I’m going to sell all my stocks in a company, it takes a while to sell the stocks,” CMU’s Hollifield says, “although, it does seem like the economy is de-fossil fueling anyway.” 

Hickton says the university sees the trend toward divestment and recognizes that many Pitt community members also favor divestment.   According to a 2019 student referendum, 91% of 2,401 students who respondedvoted in favor of divestment. 

Student organizer Elina Zhang says the Pitt Fossil Free Coalition acknowledges the university’s long-standing relationships with fossil fuel industries, but believes divestment would have long lasting benefits on communities of color that are disproportionately impacted by environmental inequities. 

“The University of Pittsburgh is part of a larger community that is very diverse and has people that have been living here for generations. Divestment can lead to reinvestment, which is a part of our third demand about seeking input from the Pittsburgh community on reinvestment decisions, that includes organizations who’ve signed on to our movement, who know the community and care about it,” Zhang says.

The Board of Trustees voted in favor of a resolution to apply the university’s current Environmental Social and Government policy to every Consolidated Endowment Fund decision while continuing to find ways to invest in initiatives that eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. The board also said it would provide greater transparency regarding the fossil fuel investment trends of the CEF by publishing an annual report. The Ad Hoc Committee officially dissolved following the meeting. 

The Pitt Fossil Fuel Coalition, which has gained support from several community organizations including the Center for Coalfield Justice, the Sunrise Movement Pittsburgh, and Allegheny County’s Green Party, among others, says it will continue to put pressure on the university. 

“Now the committee has been dissolved and the University wants us to think the matter is resolved, but the climate crisis is already here and wreaking ecological havoc in our communities,” says Abhishek Viswanathan, a student organizer with Pitt Fossil Free. “Our fight for divestment is not going away, though it is going to transform.”