The British Medical Association (BMA) has voted to end its investments in the fossil fuel industry making it the first medical organization in the world to do so. It will look to instead invest in renewable energy.
The proposal to divest from fossil fuels was passed at the BMA's annual meeting in June. The organization is the representative body for UK doctors.
Simon Bullock, a senior campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said, “More and more institutions are divesting from fossil fuels as climate change impacts grow. It's fantastic that doctors are leading from the front on this critical public health issue.”
The motion was put forward on the basis that climate change presents “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century,” as described in a report by the UCL-Lancet Commission in 2009.
The BMA has become part of a growing movement of institutions to divest from the oil, coal and gas industries – joining 13 universities and colleges in the U.S. alone, 28 of the world's cities, 28 investment foundations and 41 religious institutions including the World Council of Churches, which announced its commitment to divestment earlier this month.
According to the World Heath Organization, some of the potential health threats from a changing climate include extreme heat, reduced availability of drinking water and an increase in climate-sensitive diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.
The transition to a low carbon economy that divesting from fossil fuels would help facilitate could also have health benefits, according to an editorial published by the British Medical Journal in April. It argued that more active forms of transport and less red meat consumption would reduce rates of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer, and that cleaner air would cut cases of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease.
Jane Richards, a member of the BMA’s Retired Members Forum, who put forward the divestment motion, said: “Although fossil fuels have contributed to improvements in health, it is now time to reassess our reliance on them.”
The BMA motion was passed only as a reference, meaning that although the idea is supported by BMA members, its officers must now decide whether it is financially feasible before pushing ahead. BMA chairman Mark Porter said this would allow time to explore the issue more closely.
The BMA doesn't own investment shares directly, but rather holds £80 million ($136 million) in index tracker funds, which are collective investment schemes that hold constant regardless of market conditions, and which could be changed to fossil-free portfolios.
“The BMA’s investments are relatively small, so this was largely a symbolic move,” said Christopher Venables, program and membership officer at Medact. Along with fellow campaign group Healthy Planet UK, Medact set up Fossil Free Health in April, targeting the BMA on the issue.
Venables said work is already under way to ensure the motion is acted upon. “We’re currently in conversation with the BMA about how and when they remove their investments,” he said.
“The usual timeline we recommend for institutions is five years, but that is for very complicated situations," he added. "The process should be relatively simple for the BMA so we expect the process to be completed within 12 months.”
Not all BMA members agreed that divestment is the best course of action. Dr. Paul Miller spoke against the idea, claiming that switching to fossil-free investments would “cost the association millions over years to come.”
However, fossil-free portfolios have been shown to perform similarly, and sometimes better than fossil fuel equivalents in recent years. Investing in fossil fuels is also being seen by some as an increasingly risky venture.
According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Grantham Research Institute, around 60-80% of oil, gas and coal reserves owned by firms listed on stock exchanges might never be burnt if the world acts to avoid a 2C temperature rise. This could one day render many such investments worthless.
Campaigners are hopeful that other health organizations will follow the BMA's example over the next year. Fossil Free Health is currently in dialogue with organizations including the UK's royal medical colleges, the Faculty of Public Health and the Canadian Medical Association to further push the message of divestment. Another upcoming target is the Wellcome Trust with its £16.4 billion ($27.9 billion) investment portfolio.
According to Venables, the BMA does not fully exclude the arms trade from its investment policy, allowing companies if less than 10% of their turnover is generated from armaments sales. But generally the organization has been a progressive one – and it's not the first time it has led the way on a divestment issue. In 1985 it published a report urging other healthcare organizations to remove their investments in tobacco companies.
“These institutions were advocating that patients no longer smoke tobacco, yet they were still investing in these companies,” said Beth Banks, a medical student who spoke at the BMA meeting. “Tobacco kills 6.3 million people a year, air pollution as a result of climate change kills 7 million,” she said.
“Our policies on tobacco are clear and we would not invest in a tobacco company. Our policies on climate change are also clear and now it is time to divest from fossil fuels.”