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Students push Ontario pension giant to ditch dirty investments

By: Isaac Nay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

When Aishwarya Puttur was a Grade 10 student in Oakville, Ont., she was shocked to learn her teachers’ pension fund had invested in the greenhouse gas emissions of air travel.

“Teachers are teaching us for a better future and because they want us to be successful,” Puttur said. “But how can we be successful and how can we continue to live on a dying planet when their own pension plan is investing in something that will be affecting us on a global scale?”

Puttur joined a number of other Ontario classmates to protest the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan’s (OTPP) ownership in the Bristol Airport in North Somerset — a region in England about a two-and-a-half-hour drive west of London.

OTPP, the largest single-profession pension plan in Canada, is a majority shareholder in the airport. For more than four years, the airport has tried to build a larger terminal. Local authorities, environmental groups and Ontario high school students have opposed the expansion. Now, a British court has ruled the airport can move ahead with the development.

In an email to Canada’s National Observer, a spokesperson for Bristol Airport said the expansion was “excellent news” for the region’s economy.

“It will deliver more direct international destinations for the southwest of England and South Wales, serving some of the millions of people who currently drive out of our region to London airports each year,” the spokesperson said.

The OTPP is valued at about $241.6 billion and has announced a commitment to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. In an email to Canada’s National Observer, a spokesperson for the OTPP said the airport was carbon-neutral.

“We have been an investor in airports for more than 20 years. Over that time, we have been responsible stewards of these assets and as part of that, we need to take a long-term perspective on issues like airport capacity,” said the OTPP spokesperson. “We believe Bristol Airport can grow sustainably while creating value for its stakeholders, including employees, customers and the region it serves.”

More than four years ago, Bristol Airport announced plans to expand to accommodate a 20 per cent increase in passengers. Area residents and councillors sent a flurry of objection letters to the local authority, the North Somerset Council. Residents said more flights would mean more noise, traffic and air pollution.

In 2020, the council denied the airport’s application, but the airport appealed and the matter went before the courts.

Puttur was a youth activist with Fridays for Future Toronto in 2021 when the non-profit Shift Action for Pension Wealth and Planet Health approached her. Patrick DeRochie, senior manager at the non-profit, said he had been advocating for the OTPP to divert its investments from fossil fuels and other high-polluting industries. An airport, DeRochie said, is a “significant source” of carbon emissions.

“We really see this as an example where the pension plan owns this high-carbon asset that’s dependent on growth for profit and that’s inconsistent with their other climate commitments,” DeRochie said.

To try to convince OTPP to divest, DeRochie said he asked youth activists to campaign at schools and Puttur was happy to help.

She and other youth organizers documented the OTPP’s role in the airport and emailed the information along with petitions to teachers.

“It was a bit nerve-wracking sending teachers information about their own pension plan,” Puttur said. “But I actually had responses from teachers that were quite positive… A bunch of my teachers ended up signing the petition.”

Puttur also helped put together a video compilation of students asking the pension fund to invest sustainably.

“The message that we were trying to send to teachers was the fact that the OTTP, something that allows them to get their pension, is funding the destruction of our future,” Puttur said.

DeRochie said the students’ campaign made divestment an issue at OTTP’s annual general meeting that year. “It brought a lot more teachers and students into our network,” DeRochie said, “and we actually have seen the pension plan taking action, almost more than any other pension funds since we started this work.”

On Jan. 31, the High Court ruled Bristol Airport could expand. In court documents, Justice Peter Lane said the airport’s expansion is legal and North Somerset Council does not have the authority to stop development. The land the airport would use lies outside a special conservation area and outside North Somerset’s boundaries.

“The main issue in this case is not whether emissions from any additional aircraft using Bristol Airport should be ignored. Plainly, they should not,” Lane said in his decision “Rather, it is about how and by whom those emissions should be addressed.”

In an email to Canada’s National Observer, a spokesperson for the Bristol Airport said it will forge ahead with plans to increase its capacity from 10 million passengers per year to 12 million.

When Puttur heard the news she was disappointed but remained hopeful. Back in Bristol, resident Steve Clarke said he would continue to challenge the expansion in court.

“[I felt] lots of sadness to know that something that you’ve worked on before hasn’t been successful,” Puttur said. “I don’t think I see this as a dead end. I just see it as another obstacle in the path to achieve certain success.”

Isaac Phan Nay / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

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