Columbia University to Divest from Thermal Coal Producers

The university’s trustees have voted to divest from companies that take in more than 35% of their revenue from thermal coal production.

Columbia University’s trustees have voted to divest from companies that earn a significant portion of their revenue from thermal coal production.  

“Divestment of this type is an action the university takes only rarely and in service of our highest values,” said Columbia University President Lee Bollinger. “That is why there is a very careful and deliberative process leading up to any decision such as this. Clearly, we must do all we can as an institution to set a responsible course in this urgent area.”

The university’s trustees have voted to divest from companies that take in more than 35% of their revenue from thermal coal production per the recommendation of its Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI).

The ACSRI said it made its recommendation because coal has the highest level of CO2 emission per unit of energy, and that there are several cleaner alternative energy sources for electricity production, such as natural gas, solar power and wind.  

Thermal coal is used in coal-fired electricity generating plants, compared to metallurgic coal, which is used in steel production. The coal divestment had been more than three years in the making, beginning in fall 2013, when a student group, Columbia Divest for Climate Justice, called for divestment from the largest 200 coal, oil and natural gas producers. The ACSRI rejected that divestment proposal in May 2014. 

The committee also recommended that the university establish a separate “fossil-free investment vehicle” to receive the contributions of alumni who would prefer such investment management. It also said the trustees should consider requesting Columbia Investment Management Company send a letter to the endowment’s investment managers, asking them to avoid companies that “refuse to acknowledge the social and financial costs of climate change and that fail to take economically sensible steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The ACSRI added that divestment alone was not enough to help fight climate change, and suggested the university’s president should appoint a representative committee to formulate a “plan of action” that would address “further efforts by the university to shrink its carbon footprint.”

While the purpose of the divestment is to help fight climate change, Columbia acknowledged that it is mainly a symbolic gesture, pointing out that other buyers will step in, stock prices will not directly be affected, and coal producers will not stop producing coal.

“Although the university does not generally engage in symbolic speech on public policy matters, the university can and must stand up for the science,” the committee said in a statement. “A core mission of the university is the production of scientific knowledge and a core responsibility of the university in a democratic society is to encourage the use of the best -available knowledge in public decision-making.”

By Michael Katz