Health sector should divest from fossil fuels, medical groups say
The health sector should get rid of its fossil fuel investments on moral grounds, as it previously did with its tobacco investments, according to a report by a coalition of medical organisations.
The report cites climate change as "the biggest global health threat of the 21st century" and says air pollution from fossil fuels also causes millions of premature deaths a year. The organisations argue that the health sector, and in particular the £18bn Wellcome Trust, should not be helping to fund the harm they exist to tackle.
"The link between fossil fuels, air pollution and climate change are clear, and the health impacts are unacceptably high," said Dr David McCoy, director of health charity Medact, which produced the report with the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, the Climate and Health Council, Healthy Planet UK, and Medsin. "This report sends an unequivocal message that the health sector should end its financial association with the fossil fuel industry."
The report argues that the tobacco and fossil fuel industries have both worked to create doubt about the harm the use of their products can cause.
"The UK health profession led the way in the tobacco divestment movement two decades ago, putting the issue firmly on the political agenda and paving the way for stronger anti-tobacco legislation," writes public health professor Martin McKee, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in the report. "This report shows why, in 2015, fossil fuels can no longer be considered an ethical investment. This is one of the defining challenges of our time."
The members of the British Medical Association have already voted to divest from fossil fuels, the first health organisation in the world to do so. But the Wellcome Trust has rejected the call.
"Climate change is one of the greatest contemporary challenges to global health, and the Wellcome Trust has made understanding the connections between environment, nutrition and health one of our five key research challenges," said a spokesman for the Wellcome Trust, one of the world's biggest funders of medical research. "We understand the aims of the campaign to encourage divestment from fossil fuel industries. We do not however support the approach and continue to believe that engagement offers a better prospect for change than divestment."
The Trust was unable to give the Guardian examples of its engagement with fossil fuel companies. Its endowment, worth £18bn in total, has £450m invested in Shell, BP, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton alone. But the Trust was unable to tell the Guardian the value of its total fossil fuel holdings.
The report also calls for the UK's medical Royal Colleges to divest. A spokeswoman for the Royal College of Surgeons said: "We will review the findings of the report and any implications for our investment portfolio."
Over 180 institutions, including city authorities, universities and churches, have already committed to divesting $50 billion of fossil fuel investments, a move backed by South African anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The world's governments have pledged to limit carbon emissions so that global warming is kept below a 2C danger limit. A series of analyses have found this means much of the world's known and exploitable fossil fuels will have to remain unburned. A comprehensive scientific study in January found 80% of coal reserves, 50% of gas reserves and 33% of oil reserves would have to remain in the ground.
Analysts warn that these unburnable fossil fuel reserves will become worthless if government's act on their pledge, creating a significant financial risk to investors. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, and Bank of England head Mark Carney have both warned of the risk, as does the new report.
Recently, Axa Investment Managers warned the reputation of fossil fuel companies were at immediate risk from the divestment campaign and Shell backed a shareholder demand to assess whether the company's business model is compatible with global goals to tackle climate change.
Alistair Wardrope, student doctor and co-author of the new report, said: "People worldwide are already dying as a result of the health impacts of fossil fuels, but tomorrow's doctors will have to cope with the full extent of climate change's health cost. We have a responsibility to our future patients to ensure that health organisations are not funding the biggest global health threat of the 21st century."