RACGP’s big bank ties defy member vote on climate

5 minute read

The college is celebrating a new deal with Commbank Health, a partnership which would indirectly continue funding fossil fuels.

RACGP members are calling out the college for its talk/walk disconnect when it comes to commitment on climate change.

It comes after an announcement from the RACGP last week which celebrated a partnership with CommBank Health as its official banking and financial services partner.

Immediately, some members pointed out the partnership seemed to be in conflict with the RACGP’s advocacy in recent years that recognised climate change as a significant threat to human health. 

Dr Emma Gilberg, a GP in Queensland, told the RACGP on social media that she was “beyond disappointed” of the college’s decision to partner with a major financier of the fossil fuel industry.

While CommBank has officially committed to a goal of net zero emissions by 2050, Market Forces has revealed that under the bank’s current contracts it would be funding new fossil fuel projects right up to that self-imposed deadline.  

Between 2016 and 2019, the bank lent $12 billion for fossil fuels, including $2.8 billion for projects that expanded the fossil fuel industry.

One of these is a US gas project, the Permian Highway Pipeline, which began operations as recently as January this year.

The RACGP told TMR that it was “mindful of concerns regarding the Commonwealth Bank providing banking services to fossil fuel companies”.

But it seemed the college had no immediate intention to break ties with the bank.

“We will be hosting a forum with members later this year to discuss our sustainability efforts,” an RACGP representative said. “This will be an opportunity to bring industry and members together to listen carefully to what members have to say.”

But Dr Brett Montgomery, a GP and senior lecturer in general practice at the University of Western Australia, said medical colleges could do better.

“If the RACGP is using a commitment to net zero by 2050 as their criteria for deciding who they do business with, I’d argue that that’s not enough,” he told TMR.

The partnership would make CommBank Health the presenting partner at a number of RACGP professional and educational events in 2022, including being a supporting partner of GP22. Currently the RACGP’s podcast also receives funding from the bank.

The RACGP has had a decent track record of listening to its members concerns about climate change and future direction on climate action. A convocation item from members, which was carried in 2015, meant the college adopted a policy to exclude firms within its investment portfolio with fossil fuel investments.

The motion read:

That the RACGP divests from all fossil fuel industry investments, including investments in financial institutions responsible for lending funding to other organisations for the purpose of fossil fuel exploration and extraction.

But in practice, the RACGP can make exceptions for organisations that have clear strategies in place to meet net zero emissions by 2050, such as the Commonwealth Bank.

Dr Montgomery said while he believed the RACGP had genuine concern for the future health of the planet, its actions weren’t currently consistent with its public goals.

“It’s like the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” he said.

“On the one hand, we have recognised climate change as a health emergency but if there are people who think that just talking about net zero emissions by 2050 is good enough, then that isn’t in keeping with the science and the values that the RACGP has expressed elsewhere.

“I would encourage some reflection on that.”

The RACGP being in the spotlight for its financial ties comes just one week before world leaders are set to negotiate international emission targets at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

At the meeting, a number of world leaders are prepared to adopt a position to halve global emissions by 2030.

The Morrison government this week, after already being criticised for lagging behind other developed nations for having no deadline to end emissions, finally secured support from the Nationals to reach a net zero target by 2050.

Dr Montgomery said that while targets were important, actions had to begin now from every organisation and government, including the RACGP.

“If we keep emitting a lot of carbon dioxide until the late 2040s, and then suddenly change course to achieve net zero, we will have well and truly blown our carbon budget,” he said.

The RACGP said there were benefits of having CommBank Health as its official banking and financial services partner, such as being able to offer the choice of convenient and innovative banking services to their members. 

“In terms of our own investments and investment policies, the RACGP endeavours wherever practical to invest funds only after having given due consideration to ethical, environmental, corporate governance and social issues,” said a college representative.

But RACGP members like Dr Montgomery are asking for more conscious partnerships with financial institutions that are carbon neutral.

“I ask the college to stop doing business with banks and other organisations involved in fossil fuel extraction and any other industries that are undermining action on climate change,” he said.

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