Health NGOs call for divestment from fossil fuels

4th February 2015

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Rupert Carrick

Healthcare organisations should take stronger action on climate change and end investments in companies with fossil fuel assets, according to a group of health charities.

The group, which includes the Climate and Health Council, the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, and Medact, argues that fossil fuel companies damage human health through their activities.

Investment in such companies is “immoral and inconsistent” with a healthcare organisation’s responsibility to protect health, the group says.

In a report published today, the group highlights health problems caused by climate change. These include direct damage from extreme weather and indirect impacts through changing temperatures, rainfall patterns and ecosystem collapse, which are likely to exacerbate poverty and lead to malnutrition or starvation, the report states.

Fossil fuels are also a major cause of air pollution, responsible for one in eight deaths worldwide, as well as respiratory and heart disease and low birth weight, it adds.

The group recommends that healthcare organisations review their investments in the top 200 publicly listed fossil fuel companies. It also says they should freeze any new investments in oil, gas or coal companies, and commit to selling off all shares they hold directly in such firms within two years, and indirectly within five years.

Investment should instead be redirected towards renewable or energy efficiency technologies, or other options that promote public health through maintaining a healthy environment, it suggests.

Dr David McCoy, director of Medact, said: “The link between fossil fuels, air pollution and climate change are clear, and the health impacts are unacceptably high. This report sends an unequivocal message that the health sector should end its financial association with the fossil fuel industry.”

Writing in the report, Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, drew parallels with the success of the health sector in influencing restrictions on tobacco.

“The UK health profession led the way in the tobacco divestment movement two decades ago, putting the issue firmly on the political agenda, strengthening public understanding of the risks, and paving the way for stronger anti-tobacco legislation,” he wrote.

The report highlights investments held by the healthcare charity the Wellcome Trust. According to its annual report, the trust holds an £18 billion share portfolio, with direct holdings in Shell (worth £142 million), BP (£118 million), Schlumberger (£114 million), Rio Tinto (£97 million) and BHP Billiton (£93 million).

A spokesperson for the Wellcome Trust said that it did not support a divestment campaign, and believed that engagement with fossil fuel companies had better prospects to bring about change.

“As a long-term investor, the trust places great value on the sustainability of the companies in which we invest, including their responsibilities to the environment and to wider society. These responsibilities apply both to companies that use and drive demand for fossil fuels, which remain essential to the global economy, and to those that supply them. We will continue to engage with both,” he said.

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