Cornell announces moratorium on fossil fuel investments

Cornell Chronicle May 22, 2020
Cornell campus as seen from drone
Original Article written by James Dean, Cornell Chronicle | May 22, 2020 

The Cornell University Board of Trustees voted May 22 to support a decision by its Investment Committee to institute a moratorium on new private investments focused on fossil fuels and to grow its investments in alternative energy technologies.

The moratorium emerged from the committee’s review of Cornell’s $6.9 billion endowment portfolio; the near- and medium-term financial outlook for the coal, oil and gas industries; and the potential threat posed by climate change, according to a resolution approved by trustees.

“There’s a growing recognition that we’re transitioning away from fossil fuels globally, and the economic competitiveness of renewable energy sources is rising,” said Ken Miranda, the university’s chief investment officer. “We’re doing the right thing from an investment perspective, particularly for an endowment with a perpetual time horizon.”

Effective immediately, the moratorium applies to new private equity and bond vehicles focused on fossil fuels, a category that makes up about 4.2% of Cornell’s long-term investments, Miranda said. That percentage is expected to dwindle to zero over time as existing investments mature and assets are redeployed to other areas, including renewables, he said.

The new policy does not apply to indexed and other public equity mandates, such as the S&P 500, where typically the university may be one of hundreds or thousands of investors and does not have the ability to alter an index’s composition or direct managers to include or exclude particular securities. As a matter of policy, the Investment Office does not invest directly in any individual equity securities, including those of fossil fuel companies.

The moratorium formalizes practices the portfolio had already been following for some time, Miranda said, and builds upon several strategies Cornell has implemented as part of the gradual transition toward more environmentally friendly energy sources.

More than 70% of the university’s assets under investment are run by managers committed to considering environmental, social or governance issues in their investment decisions, through frameworks including the U.N. Principles for Responsible Investment. The resolution trustees endorsed on May 22 calls for growing that percentage.

The Investment Committee already had changed its proxy voting policies to require fund managers voting on Cornell’s behalf to emphasize the maximization of long-term sustainable economic value over short-term gains. Proxy voting enables Cornell to push corporate managers and boards to pursue more sustainable practices, Miranda said.

Now, the Investment Committee has also directed the endowment to redouble its efforts to invest in more energy-efficient and new technologies, such as carbon reduction and carbon capture, “that offer competitive risk-adjusted rates of return and which help in a transition to a more sustainable future, both nationally and globally,” according to the board resolution.

“We’ve been doing that for quite some time,” Miranda said, “but we’re going to enhance that.”

Cornell’s Investment Office has a mandate to support the university’s research, education and engagement missions, including providing need-blind financial aid to expand access.

The Investment Committee determined that the moratorium and other new measures were “consistent with its fiduciary and stewardship responsibilities,” according to the resolution.

Beyond its investment portfolio, Cornell is recognized as a leader in sustainability research and education and has committed to a goal of becoming a carbon neutral campus by 2035, trustees have noted. Through Lake Source Cooling, the university uses water from Cayuga Lake as a renewable source of chilled water, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, and it is exploring Earth Source Heat, a proposed enhanced geothermal system for heating campus.

Cornell was ranked first among the Ivies in national sustainability ratings by the Princeton Review. The university’s sixth large-scale solar project came online in January, doubling the amount of campus net electricity offset by renewable energy credits from 10% to 20%. The Cornell hydroelectric plant doubled production in the past year, increasing renewable power to campus. And the university has certified 26 green buildings, including 18 meeting LEED Gold and five meeting LEED Platinum criteria, according to the Campus Sustainability Office.

In recent months, all five of Cornell’s governance bodies – the Faculty Senate and the Employee, Graduate and Professional Student, Student and University assemblies – have passed resolutions calling for the university to divest from fossil fuels.

The Investment Office shares the long-term goal of reducing reliance on fossil fuels and accelerating a shift to greener technologies while meeting its fiduciary obligations, Miranda said. The moratorium, new alternative energy investments, increased use of socially responsible managers and existing proxy voting guidelines represent a strong approach to gradually reaching that goal, he said.

“We’re still focusing on risk-reward, but we know that technology is changing every day and we have to get in front of technology,” Miranda said. “Increasingly, the world is evolving to an alternative energy future.”

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