Environment Analysis

HESTA's fossil fuel ties tarnish its reputation

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Superannuation fund HESTA has drawn criticism for its ties to the fossil fuel industry (Screenshot via YouTube)

With billions of dollars worth of investments in the fossil fuel industry, HESTA is contributing to the destruction of our planet, writes Dr David Shearman.

APART FROM the aged who die lonely and distressed in the COVID-19 ravaged health sector because of Government incompetence, health and community care workers have suffered most from the pandemic. Yet they have delivered heroic care to patients to the detriment of their own health and mental fortitude.

They work with the knowledge that their position in society, as denoted by their scant remuneration and poor work conditions, reflects their value to society in the eyes of Australian governments. Their recent strike action reflects only their desperation.

Please reflect on their stories. There are thousands more like these.

Many of these health and community workers are members of the Health Employees Superannuation Trust Australia (HESTA). In addition to their commitment to humanity through nursing and community service, many will have concerns and commitments to the non-COVID threats to society, climate change and environmental damage.

Many will find that HESTA has investments in Australia’s two biggest oil and gas companies – Woodside and Santos – and realise their personal savings will help accelerate change in the climate resulting in many deaths and illnesses.

A study from Columbia University shows that adding a million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere on top of 2020 levels for just one year will cause heat-related deaths of 226 people in the world. A million tonnes is a quarter of the annual output of an average coal-fired power station.

Of course, there are many additional ways by which climate change may cause death including bushfires, storms, flooding and malnutrition in droughts. The leading medical journal, The Lancet, regards climate change as the greatest health threat facing the world this century and the Climate Council’s scientists detail the health impacts in Australia in their report, ‘Kicking the Gas Habit: How Gas is Harming our Health’.

The threat to the climate from the gas industry is perhaps more concerning than that of coal. The consumer burns gas (methane) to carbon dioxide but before doing so, many leaks of methane have occurred during drilling, fracking, transport and storage and even in the consumer’s home. This leaking methane, unaccounted for by governments and industry, can now be detected as huge plumes of methane emanating from the world’s gas producing regions.

Even more concerning is the fact that methane is a forcing agent 80 times more potent in raising temperatures than carbon dioxide and this may decide the future of humankind before 2030 by making climate change self-perpetuating through tipping points. The importance is emphasised by around 100 countries signing at COP26 to commit to a 30 per cent reduction in methane by 2030.

Australia did not sign.

Many have called it the methane gas bomb because it will pack its punch in warming the climate in the next few decades whereas carbon dioxide acts over centuries.

There are at least eight potential tipping points identified including loss of the Amazon and other rainforests through clearing and burning releasing more CO2 and thawing of Arctic permafrost releasing both methane and CO2.

Today, the stark position is that if the rise in temperature is to be halted, then CO2 emissions from coal and gas need to stop now. If emissions are not ceased, there needs to be an enhanced removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. Instead of the madness of persisting with ineffective carbon capture and storage to allow coal and gas to be burned, pilot plants such as Orca are being built to pull CO2 from the atmosphere and store it underground.

A study by Climate Analytics shows that:

‘Woodside’s proposed Scarborough to Pluto LNG project in Western Australia represents a bet against the world implementing the Paris Agreement.’

The total cumulative carbon dioxide equivalent emissions will be 42 million tonnes each year which will cause thousands of deaths worldwide and may contribute to climate change becoming unstoppable.

The minutes of HESTA’s Annual Member Meeting in November 2021 noted that the International Energy Agency (IEA) recognised the role of gas in the energy transition. However, the minutes fail to mention that the IEA also recommends no new gas or coal developments.

In response to questions at the November meeting, HESTA makes some remarkable statements:

‘If we were to sell shares in the companies mentioned above, HESTA doesn’t remove or reduce carbon from the atmosphere.’

This evades the issue. HESTA’s investments will add methane emissions to the atmosphere and this ignores the COP26 pledge to reduce emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

HESTA explained:

‘If we were not a shareholder, we wouldn’t be able to effectively push for change and our members would remain exposed to the broader economic impact of climate change.’

Unfortunately, this is a naïve belief. Analysis of the behaviour of oil and gas companies over many decades indicates that this is equivalent to that of investing in tobacco companies to try and change them.

The HESTA gas investments also involve issues of climate and environmental justice. The developed nations including Australia are largely responsible for the world’s emissions that cause these deaths, but the developing world bears the brunt of extreme weather and mounting deaths. In Australia, many gas projects have been approved without proper consideration of justice for First Nations people as defined in a recent report from the National Environmental Defenders Office.

HESTA’s fossil fuel investments demolish its ethical standing for they greatly harm human health, will cause thousands of deaths and compromise the future of humankind.

Perhaps the profits from the sale of these shares could be given to health organisations for the wellbeing of First Nations people and to charities to help the homeless.

I send my thanks to Market Forces for alerting me to this important health issue.

Dr David Shearman AM is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University and the co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

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