Air pollution linked to fossil fuels is responsible for the deaths of 553 deaths across Northern Ireland every year, a shocking new report has revealed.
A Belfast medical expert has called on health organisations to phase out their investment in the fossil fuel industry as it emerged that such air pollution is also said to be responsible for more than 140 deaths across the city.
Dr Gary McFarlane, director of the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health, joined medical experts from across the UK in calling on health organisations to divest in the industry, as they have already done with tobacco.
For example, charitable foundation the Wellcome Trust has holdings of £450m in just four of the major fossil fuel extraction companies. Fossil fuels account for 29,000 early deaths in the UK each year.
Dr McFarlane said: "The science is telling us very clearly that continued reliance on fossil fuels is not only unsustainable but will have significant health implications across the globe.
"Indeed, we already have air quality issues and associated health impacts here in the UK as a result of their over-use. I welcome the debate that this report raises.
"To continue to invest in this sector in light of what the evidence is telling surely raises ethical issues for organisations that exist to improve health, wellbeing and quality of life". The Unhealthy Investments report examines the need for a move towards renewable energy, both to reduce these short-term health impacts, and to safeguard the health of future generations.
Last year, representatives of the British Medical Association voted to end its investments in the fossil fuel industry and increase investment in renewable energy because of the serious health threat posed by air pollution from coal, oil and gas.
In the report, Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: "The UK health profession led the way in the tobacco divestment movement two decades ago, putting the issue firmly on the political agenda, strengthening public understanding of the risks, and paving the way for stronger anti-tobacco legislation. This report shows why, in 2015, fossil fuels can no longer be considered an ethical investment.
"This is one of the defining challenges of our time."
Dr David McCoy, director of health charity Medact, said: "This report sends an unequivocal message that the health sector should end its financial association with the fossil fuel industry.
"We need a radically different and more sustainable pattern of energy production and consumption. Shifting money away from fossil fuels is an important step in that direction."
"Air pollution is responsible for over 500 early deaths in Northern Ireland every year. Health professionals have a responsibility to act on these risks and to make sure that organisations which are supposed to promote health aren't... doing the opposite by investing in fossil fuels, the biggest cause of air pollution."
- Belfast GP Dr Laura-Jayne Hughes