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Penn’s zero-emissions plan prioritizes profit above meaningful action against climate change. Credit: Joy Lee

The story always seems to be the same: each year, global carbon emissions hit a record, “unprecedented” high. And each year, we creep towards a dystopian future plagued by environmental destruction. Time and time again, scientists have warned us that the only way to slow this existential threat is through immediate and significant action. 

So, knowing what we know about climate change, where does this leave Penn’s recent promise to reduce carbon emissions to “net-zero” by 2050?

The new initiative, announced Wednesday, involves investments within Penn’s endowment. Capital within this endowment — which is currently worth $14.9 billion, the sixth largest endowment in the nation — will be shifted towards investing in assets committed to reducing their carbon footprint. But yet again, one thing remains glaringly unchanged: Penn, still prioritizing profit above meaningful action, will not divest from fossil fuels. 

This statement comes after years of clearly outlined, coordinated student demands for divestment. For eight years, Fossil Free Penn has led protests, sit-ins, and meetings with the University Board to push Penn to withdraw from any investment — direct or indirect — from the fossil fuel industry, and instead reinvest it into clean energy. But the administration has consistently ignored their demands. 

Penn’s new zero-emissions plan is built on a paradox: they’re expecting to mitigate the effects of climate change yet continuing to invest in the very industry causing them. Oil, coal, and natural gas companies that have agreed net-zero emission goals have taken little steps towards actually reducing their footprint — BP, for example, has pledged to reduce direct carbon emissions, but doesn’t plan on decreasing or production. Similarly, Shell has also pledged to cut its footprint, but only in proportion to their extraction rate, allowing emissions to gain a net increase.

Penn is also no stranger to loopholes in their climate policies. At least judging from their recent announcement, Penn has vague interest in investing directly into clean energy — in an interview with Penn Today, the Chief Investment Officer Peter Ammon noted “just because an opportunity might be focused on sustainability doesn’t mean it will have a risk and reward profile that is attractive.” Instead, Ammon points towards “carbon capture”, which describes a process of siphoning excess atmospheric CO2 into storage. The fossil fuel industry has a massive monetary incentive to support carbon capture, as it allows them to continue extraction and production while superficially meeting international climate goals — but even if this risky and unproven technology works, it will only extend the carbon budget by a negligible amount. 

Considering global warming is already causing global devastation, a zero-emissions plan realized thirty years in the future is the policy equivalent of trying to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic. Divestment, therefore, is a necessity — each cent put towards the already obscenely wealthy fossil fuel industry not only supports environmentally devastating projects, but larger global economic dependence on fossil fuels. On the other hand, an interruption to fossil fuel companies’ now-constant flow of capital decreases the industry’s returns and valuations on these infrastructure projects — essentially, if businesses move away from fossil fuel investment, it becomes less profitable for the industry to exploit natural resources. In the past, even modest reductions in financial support have threatened the industry’s stability — and considering only twenty firms are behind a third of the world’s carbon emissions, divestment would be powerful. Climate change isn’t going to wait around while Penn makes their financial decisions more palatable for shareholders.

Considering the fossil fuel industry is already financially volatile, there’s certainly an added economic incentive to divestment. But perhaps most importantly, Penn has an opportunity to be a global leader. While Penn alone may not make waves, divestment would set an influential precedent and ultimately work towards dismantling the power of the fossil fuel industry. 

Penn’s current plan is one of empty platitudes and inadequate promises — the University is perfectly poised to take meaningful action on the climate change crisis, but political will is the only thing stopping them. For investment officers who make over $2.6 million per year to imply that their hands are tied behind their backs when it comes to divesting a $14.9 billion dollar endowment from fossil fuels is laughable. 

To the administration: when it comes to the survival of the Earth, milquetoast compromises won’t cut it. You frame the goal of combating climate change as a complicated effort, one that will take decades and require “scientific innovation, political will, and changes in consumer behavior.” But the truth is, we already know how to lower emissions. We know how to take decisive action on climate change and work towards a “healthier and more livable world”. And we’ve been telling you for years — so now it’s time to listen.

TAJA MAZAJ is a College first year from King of Prussia, Pa. Her email is tajam@sas.upenn.edu.

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