Wellcome Trust sells stakes in large oil and mining companies

One of the UK’s biggest philanthropic investors has quietly sold its stakes in large oil and mining companies such BP and Shell.

The Wellcome Trust is one of the biggest funders of scientific research in the UK with a £38bn investment fund. For almost a decade it has resisted pressure from organisations, including the Guardian, who argued that profiting from fossil fuel companies was incompatible with the Trust’s objective of improving public health and wellbeing.

Wellcome Trust staff were told on Tuesday that the organisation has stopped investing in large oil and mining companies. However, in a sign of the complicated politics around such a decision, the organisation said it would not actively seek press coverage of the decision.

A leaked internal memo, seen by the Guardian, said the Wellcome Trust had not previously given a running commentary on investments in fossil fuel businesses as it is “not helpful for us to share everything in public about discussions we have with companies”.

Staff were told: “For us to have influence, we need effective relationships. As with Wellcome’s other advocacy work, where we have challenging conversations with governments, international bodies or partners, it’s not helpful for us to share everything in public about discussions we have with companies. Doing so risks damaging our relationships and our reputation as a reliable and trustworthy partner, and means we lose influence.”

The memo to staff, sent on the UK’s hottest-ever day amid the ongoing climate crisis, said divestment from BP and Shell was entirely unrelated to the decade-long campaign to sell its holdings in the companies.

Instead, the Wellcome Trust said the decision to sell its holdings in the companies – as well as the miners BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto – was made to insulate the investment fund from financial fluctuations. The investment fund retains some small private investments in the fossil fuel industries, which are harder to sell.

The organisation said it preferred shareholder activism over divestment and had regularly met with BP and Shell to pressure them to invest in clean energy sources and applauded their stated commitment to investing in green energy.

Rianna Gargiulo at Friends of the Earth, which is part of the UK Divest group, was critical of this approach and said the Wellcome Trust “could have made up for idling so long by making a powerful statement that it no longer supports those who seek to delay climate action.”

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“Disappointingly, it has instead pedalled the greenwash of big oil and gas firms who claim to be committed to green ideals,” she said. “For a leading scientific institution that knows well enough the massive health impacts associated with runaway climate breakdown, it’s not good enough.”

When the Guardian launched its divestment campaign in 2015, the Wellcome Trust held about £400m in fossil fuel investments.

Divestment campaigners argue selling off fossil fuel shares is a powerful way to influence investors and reduce the social acceptability of the companies. Today, more than 1500 institutions managing $40 trillion have divested from fossil fuels, including many educational and faith-based organisations and numerous pension funds.

The vast majority of fossil fuel reserves currently owned by companies must remain in the ground if the climate crisis is to be ended, a 2021 analysis found.


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