The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has sold off investments in coal companies from its £16m endowment in a bid to rid itself of ties to firms that contribute most significantly to climate change. Campaigners say it is the first health research organisation in the world to do so.

A spokesperson for the university told the Guardian on Wednesday: “The school’s investment committee has recently decided to disinvest from coal. We are continuing to review our other energy investments.”

The move means that the institution has removed its direct investments – but not commingled funds – from companies that make more than 10% of their revenue from coal, including the mining giant Rio Tinto. They have also committed not to invest in such companies in future.

Martin McKee, professor of European public health at LSHTM, has backed divestment and called the university a “pioneer”.

He said: “I am proud to be part of a university that is prepared to show leadership, whether with Ebola, global health, or in this case disinvestment in fossil fuels. I expect that many other universities and health research funders will soon follow, recognising the strong economic and moral arguments.”

In March, the Guardian launched a campaign calling on the world’s largest health funders – the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust – to divest from fossil fuels. More than 202,000 people from 170 countries around the world have signed the petition.

Alice Munro, a nurse studying public health at LSHTM has co-lead the campus divestment campaign at LSHTM since it launched last November. She said: “This is a good first step and indicates that the school agrees in principle that investing in fossil fuels is unethical and inconsistent with the values of an institution dedicated to promoting human health.”

The Wellcome Trust, which has an endowment of more than £18bn, is one of the world’s largest funders of medical research. In 2014, a minimum of £450m was invested in fossil fuel companies including Shell, Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and BP. The trust has so far rejected the call to divest.

Its director, Jeremy Farrar, has argued that engagement with fossil fuel companies is more effective than divestment. “We use our access to company boards to press for more transparent and sustainable policies that support transition towards a low-carbon economy,” he wrote.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have more than $1.4bn (£1bn) invested in fossil fuel companies, according to a Guardian analysis of their most recent tax filings in 2013.

A spokesman for Bill Gates said: “We respect the passion of advocates for action on climate change, and recognise that there are many views on how best to address it. Bill is privately investing considerable time and resources in the effort [to develop clean energy].”

LSHTM is only the second health organisation in the UK and third in the world to have made a divestment decision regarding fossil fuels, according to global health campaigners at MedAct.

In February a coalition of medical organisations published a report urging the health sector to divest from fossil fuels. It cited climate change as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century” and asked health organisations including the Wellcome Trust to repeat the leadership they had shown on tobacco divestment. In June 2014, the British Medical Association – the representative body of doctors in the UK – voted in favour of divestment.

David McCoy, director of MedAct, one of the organisations that made up the coalition said: “This decision will hopefully encourage the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation to follow suit. Both Wellcome and Gates have been finding excuses to avoid taking the kind of radical action needed to avert the crisis of climate change, whilst the moral, financial and scientific case for divestment by health institutions is becoming harder and harder to dismiss.”

LSHTM is the fourth university in the UK to have committed to some form of fossil fuel divestment, following Glasgow, Bedfordshire and Soas, University of London. Syracuse University is the largest in the world to have commited to full fossil fuel divestment, with Stanford divesting from coal. Campaigners at Edinburgh University are currently staging an occupation of the university’s management building after it rejected calls to divest on Tuesday.

The decision sees them join a fast growing divestment campaign started by the global climate movement In total, more than 220 institutions – from pension funds to faith organisations to foundations – have now made similar commitments.

In March the UN organisation responsible for co-ordinating a global climate change deal backed divestment saying it did so because “it sends a signal to companies, especially coal companies, that the age of ‘burn what you like, when you like’ cannot continue.”

Emma Howard

This article first appeared on the guardian

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