The Republic of Ireland is set to be the world’s first country to pull its money out of fossil fuels. This is the latest – and most far-reaching – commitment in a divestment movement pushing governments, religious institutions, universities and other bodies to divest their money from coal, oil and gas companies.
The bill, introduced by independent politician Thomas Pringle and supported by all political parties, was passed in the lower houses of parliament on Thursday and compels the country’s €8.9 billion ($10.3 billion) national investment fund – the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund – to sell off its investments in 150 global fossil fuel companies “as soon as practicable.” These are estimated to be currently worth around €318 million ($370 million).
Éamonn Meehan of Trócaire, an anti-poverty NGO set up by the Catholic Church, said the bill was a culmination of two years of work. He called it “a significant change of pace” for a country which last month was ranked second worst in Europe for action on climate change by the Climate Action Network, a network of environmental NGOs.
“Governments will not meet their obligations under the Paris Agreement on climate change if they continue to financially sustain the fossil fuel industry,” said Gerry Liston, legal officer with the Global Legal Action Network, which drafted the bill. “Countries the world over must now urgently follow Ireland’s lead and divest from fossil fuels.”
The next step is for the bill to make its way through the Seanad (the Irish Senate), although this body does not have the power to veto the bill, only to amend or delay it.
The campaign for global fossil fuel divestment, spearheaded by environmentalists such as Bill McKibben of the nonprofit 350.org, argues that the world cannot extract and burn the fossil fuel reserves we know about without causing temperature rises that will bring about catastrophic climate change.
The divestment campaign has had a number of other high profile successes.
Norway has made moves to shed fossil fuel investments from its $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund ― built from Norway’s own oil riches. In June 2015, the country decided to sell investments in companies which made more than 30 percent of their revenues from coal. And last year, Norway’s central bank recommended that oil and gas investments – which represent around $37 billion – also be ditched from the fund, although this has yet to be adopted by the country’s parliament.
The Church of England announced this month it would be divesting its funds from any companies that have not aligned themselves with the climate goals set out in the Paris Agreement on climate change. And last year, 40 Catholic Church institutions said they would be turning their backs on fossil fuel investment.
The increasingly energized movement has also spread to pension funds, universities, NGOs and medical associations, among others.
The movement’s impact has been debated. Bill McKibben has pointed to Shell’s recent annual report, which referred to divestment as a material risk to their business, as evidence that the campaign is disrupting and worrying fossil fuel giants. But critics suggest that divested shares will simply be snapped up by investors who don’t have these ethical concerns and that divestment itself will have little impact on the companies.
Meehan disagrees. “[Ireland’s divestment] will stop public money being invested against the public interest, and it sends a clear signal nationally and globally that action on the climate crisis needs to be accelerated urgently, starting with the phase-out of fossil fuels.”
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