COP21 SERIES: Divestment from Fossil Fuels Promotes Climate Change Mitigation and Protection of the Right to Health

Sustainable Student Action (SSA) at a divestment rally in the Seattle University Quad. (image credit Backbone Campaign)
Sustainable Student Action (SSA) at a divestment rally in the Seattle University Quad. (image credit Backbone Campaign)

Alice Munro


It is well understood that reducing global carbon emissions would generate immediate health benefits, from reducing air pollution and occupational dangers in high-risk extractive industries, to the generation of co-benefits via increased use of active transport and reduced meat consumption. Ultimately the health gains from long-term climate change mitigation are unquantifiable. This COP21 SERIES in the Health and Human Rights Journal highlights many of the connections between human rights and climate change, and offers a valuable platform to link the practises of the fossil fuel industry and the right to health.


The right to health enshrined by WHO guarantees the right tohave access to the highest available standard of health”. However, the ability to deliver primary health services depends on systems of governance and infrastructure that would be severely challenged under conditions of 4-6°C global warming. The Lancet Commission on health and climate change predicts that ‘public health systems around the world would be damaged, some to the point of collapse’ if such a level of warming were to occur. Yet this level of warming is built into energy industry forecasts of future fossil fuel use (see below).


Ahead of COP21 in Paris in December, 156 governments have submitted their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) to cut carbon emissions. The UN has estimated that adhering to these commitments will put the world on a trajectory towards 2.7°C global warming by the end of this century. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency (IEA), Statoil, BP and ExxonMobil have forecast fossil fuel use up to 2040, and anticipate that consumption of fossil fuels will exceed the INDC predicted emissions by over 100GtCO2, enough to put the world on a trajectory towards 4-6°C global warming by 2100.


This is why the divestment movement calls on investors to pledge to end investments in the top-200 fossil fuel companies. Divestment is a moral statement—that it is wrong to profit from an industry that is endangering the health of people the world over, in particular the health of those in countries least responsible for historic carbon emissions. Further to this, a statement of intent to divest sends a clear signal to markets and governments that the urgency and scale of the transition to clean energy is incompatible with industry plans to continue, even to expand, fossil fuel consumption.  Divestment has a strong track record as an effective tool to influence policy actors by reducing their moral and social license to operate, having previously led to action to end apartheid and regulation of tobacco. Of these movements, the fossil fuel divestment movement is the fastest growing in history thanks to its ability to unite people around a global-level social injustice, and a genuine financial risk.


The divestment movement was inspired by the work of financial analysts in London who identified the potential for “stranded assets” if a binding global commitment to limit emissions to a 2°C scenario is agreed. Such a commitment would necessitate leaving 80% of existing fossil fuel reserves in the ground. These are fossil fuel assets that will cease to be economically viable if the transition to low-carbon energy continues on its current trajectory, or accelerates. Even in the absence of a binding agreement coal mining, arctic oil exploration and tar sands projects are rapidly becoming the first stranded assets, with President Obama’s recent rejection of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline a prescient example. Meanwhile 90% of the 156 nations who have submitted INDCs are prioritising growth of renewables. In 2015 the fossil fuel industry received direct and indirect subsidies of around $5.3 trillion globally; if governments were to move these subsidies to renewables many more fossil fuel assets would become “stranded”.


The divestment movement has empowered individuals and investors to go beyond attempts to influence demand for fossil fuels; rather, people can directly influence fossil fuel supply and the structural drivers of climate change, challenging the systems that lock us into fossil fuel dependency. Further to this, by ultimately reducing investor confidence, divestment reduces the industry’s capacity to undermine climate science and misinform the public.


Yet there is currently a cognitive disconnect between how the major actors in climate and health spend their funds, and where they raise those funds. The Gates Foundation takes seriously the health impacts of climate change and is investing $2 billion in renewable energy technologies, while the Wellcome trust in the UK recently announced £75 million of research funding into health and climate change. However, the funding is in part raised from investments in an industry that is contributing to the problems they seek to address. This is why Medact in the UK and Physicians for Social Responsibility in the US are part of a growing movement calling for divestment by these and other health sector institutions. Health professionals have a capacity and responsibility to advocate for and effect change: divestment is more than a “grand gesture’”, it is an essential demonstration of commitment to limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2°C, and protecting the right to health for all.


Alice Munro is Climate, Energy and Health Project Manager, Medact, UK