Open Access Week Series: The importance of access to information in the move toward fossil fuel divestment at the University of Waterloo

This article is one of a series celebrating open scholarship during Open Access Week. It is brought to you by the Open Scholarship Committee.

Open access symbol (open lock) semi-transparent in front of a garbage filled beach. Openly available information has been central to the success of Fossil Free UW’s campaign to see the University of Waterloo divest its fossil fuel investments held by the pension and student endowment funds.

Making the University of Waterloo community aware of its financial support of fossil fuels required us and our friends in faculties across the university to examine the details. Our mission to uncover and address how much financial support the university provided to actors in the fossil fuel industry succeeded, thanks to years of inquiry and cooperation with individuals committed to the ethics of transparency.

The university administration shared investments with us in 2017, which revealed $68M of fossil fuel holdings in the top 200 fossil fuel companies. Math student Vincent Macri’s 2019 freedom of information (FOI) request revealed UW still held $61M. This information was essential in pushing forward the conversation about fossil fuel divestment at the University of Waterloo. This collected information also allowed then-Environment Ph.D. student, Truzaar Dordi, to compile evidence that investments the university made in fossil fuel companies had lost them a total of at least $20M between 2011 and 2015. This information informed the May 2021 report from the Responsible Investing Advisory Group and the June 2021 decision of the Board of Governors to commit to 100% carbon neutrality in both its pension and endowment fund by 2040 and to rid itself of all positions in fossil fuel exploration and extraction companies by 2025.

Logo for Fossil Free UW. 

The community action to convince the University of Waterloo to divest was made possible by our ability to access investment information in 2017. Without Vincent Macri’s FOI request that updated data in 2019, we wouldn’t have been able to demonstrate that policy change was needed to help the University align with Paris Climate Commitments. Access to this information, which showed us how much UW money was being invested in companies like BP and Shell, shaped our campaign to motivate UW to divest. This data focused the divestment conversation.

Access to information made our mission possible. Through the Principles of Responsible Investment, UW has committed to a standard of open access that continues to ensure that information is made public without delay to ensure it is meeting its climate goals.

Fossil Free uWaterloo facilitates learning, discussion, decision-making, and action to make our campus a climate justice leader.

For further information about the commitments that the University of Waterloo has made towards a fossil free campus see below: