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University of California Commits $1 Billion to Climate Research

Words by Jan Lee

Yesterday’s People's Climate March was predicted to be a game-changer for climate policies across the globe. While nearly 400,000 attended to make their wishes known, unfortunately there can sometimes be a big divide between public demands and institutional action. One public entity in California is already making plans to dramatically increase its support for improved climate initiatives.

The University of California has announced that it will commit $1 billion to climate change research initiatives. And with a $91 billion portfolio behind it and some of the top researchers in climate technology on its payroll, the state university system is in a unique position to lend weight to this endeavor.

In a statement earlier this month, UC President Janet Napolitano stated that the UC system would start off by allocating $1 billion over the next five years to ways to address climate change. It wants to have the framework in place by the end of the year, and “integrate environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors as a core component of portfolio optimization and risk management.”

Earlier this year, the university system said it hadn’t committed to drop any of its substantial fossil fuel investments, but agreed it would “evaluate all strategies for achieving ESG goals as soon as practical, including whether to use divestment.” Its decision was clarified on Sept. 18 following the regent's vote, when the university announced it would not to drop its carbon-based investments, but look for other ways to increase its commitments to carbon neutrality.

Jagdeep Bachher, UC’s chief investment officer and vice president of investments for the president’s office, said that dropping the $10 billion divestment was not a practical option at this time.

“It is clear to me ... that these actions will have financial consequences on all of us and on our portfolios,” said Bachher, addressing divestment activists, who were hoping for a bolder climate change strategy by the university.

UC isn’t the only university to have rocked back on its heels in response to pressure to divest from oil and gas companies. Last year, Harvard University also resisted pressures to divest from fossil fuel industries stating that it did not feel its endowments should be governed by climate change.

Despite this sticky point, Napolitano says that UC will be the first public university in the U.S. to adhere to the United Nations’ principles for responsible investment (PRI). They are six broadly-written principles that endorse environmental and social responsibility.

UC’s commitment is evidence of a widening trend by public and private institutions across North America to support the U.N. PRI. Earlier this year, privately-owned Harvard University signed on to the PRI. There have also been a number of Canadian universities, such as Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, that endorsed the principles earlier this year.

Napolitano said the university will also be increasing its dependence on solar over the next 25 years as part of its goal of meeting its carbon-neutrality goals by 2025. This includes two solar arrays in rain-parched but sunny Fresno County developed by Frontier Renewables. The project will give the university the ability to pump 206,000 megawatt-hours back into California’s electrical grid. The university says the excess power will be the equivalent of what it would take to power 30,000 homes. Just as importantly, it will decrease the university’s carbon load by 88,000 metric tons per year.

Napolitano, well known for her support of environmental initiatives when she was governor of Arizona earlier this decade, has also established a global climate leadership council to bring together stakeholders from all sections of the university and greater community. Students, faculty, staff and authorities in climate change are taking part in the university’s strategy for combating climate change. The university has yet to announce, however, how it will attain carbon neutrality with more than 10 percent of its investments tied up in carbon-based industries.

Image credit: UC Berkeley: Charlie Nguyen via Flickr

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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