Health organisations are under pressure today to ditch their investment in polluting fossil fuels and end their support for the companies driving “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”.
Thirty years ago health professionals called for an end to tobacco funding on the grounds it contradicted their commitment to ‘do no harm’.
Now a coalition of NGOs is warning that ‘unhealthy investments’ in dirty energy are also incompatible with health organisations’ moral and professional responsibilities.
Globally, an estimated 400,000 deaths are caused each year by climate change, while air pollution from coal, oil and gas accounts for another seven million premature deaths annually.
Taken together, these impacts are greater than those from tobacco, which accounted for around 6.3 million deaths in 2010.
Dr David McCoy, Director of health charity 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. We need a radically different and more sustainable pattern of energy production and consumption.
Shifting money away from fossil fuels is an important step in that direction. It’s time for the health community, through organisations such as the Royal Colleges and the Wellcome Trust, to lead the way.
Last year, the British Medical Association (BMA) became the first medical organisation to vote in favour of fossil fuel divestment because of the benefits to people’s health across the world.
Yet, despite being experts on healthy living, the medical community can’t seem to beat its fossil fuel addiction and groups like the Wellcome Trust are still investing heavily in dirty energy – to the tune of £450 million (€596 million).
Renewable energy technologies are on the rise and together with energy efficiency measures could bring multiple benefits to human health.
Meanwhile, moves to address greenhouse gas emissions and the transition to a clean economy will rapidly reduce the value of fossil fuel assets.
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 – including 80% of coal reserves, 50% of gas reserves and 33% of oil reserves would have to remain in the ground.
By supporting divestment, health organisations will make a strong ethical stand and play a leading role in limiting the impacts of fossil fuels, while also safeguarding the sector itself against risky investments and the future health costs of climate change.
Alistair Wardrope, student doctor and co-author of the 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 what has been described as the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.
In 2014, the global fossil fuel divestment movement doubled in size, and what started with a few US universities now includes institutions with a combined asset size of more than US $50 billion pledging to ditch their holdings in fossil fuels.
Meanwhile influential messengers – from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the President of the World Bank Jim Kim, and Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change – have called for divestment from the fossil fuel industry.
The campaign is at the forefront of a burgeoning movement of people around the world who are taking to the streets to challenge institutions and governments and to demand strong climate action.
Ahead of Global Divestment Day, NGOs want more health organisations to follow the BMA’s example, and join the hundreds of universities, cities, institutions and individuals around the world that have already divested from fossil fuels.