If a new bill passes in Ireland, the country will be the first in the world to drop all its state investments in fossil fuels.
In a 90 to 53 vote in January, the Irish Parliament passed the bill through its first stage. If it passes a review by the country’s financial committee, the $9 billion Ireland Strategic Investment Fund will have to sell its coal, oil, and gas investments over the next five years.
“We looked at it as an issue of public money not being invested in the public interest,” says Selina Donnelly, a policy officer at the Irish nonprofit Trócaire, which helped push the bill forward. “It’s directly against the public interest.”
As of December 2016, 688 institutions and nearly 60,000 individual investors around the world had pledged to divest from fossil fuels, collectively representing more than $5 trillion in assets. Major investment banks have divested from coal. Many universities have divested from all fossil fuels. But although Norway’s sovereign wealth fund has begun to divest, no country has gone all the way yet.
After climate activist Bill McKibben spoke about divestment at a 2015 conference in Ireland, a grassroots movement grew there. Pressure from students led Trinity College, the highest-ranked university in the country, to announce its divestment from fossil fuels in December 2016. A couple of weeks later, the bill was introduced.
The current state of U.S. politics may have helped the bill succeed so far. In the parliamentary debate, held on the eve of the U.S. inauguration, politicians talked about the opportunity for Ireland to lead by showing its commitment to the Paris climate agreement.
“We should not associate ourselves with Trump-era politics,” Thomas Pringle, the Parliament member who introduced the bill, said in the debate. “His administration and its public display of affection for big oil is representative of the industry’s fading legacy and its last attempt to hold onto power.”
Supporters also argue that it makes financial sense to pull out of fossil fuels. As the first country to do so, Ireland would put itself in a position to be a leader on climate policy. And it’s also sound financial policy, with the fossil fuel market doing so poorly: One study found that if the country had sold off those investments at the beginning of 2015 and bought less dirty investments, it would have made $23 million more by the end of the year, while lowering the portfolio’s carbon footprint 48%.