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Lawyers and climate change: the basics

Lawyers and climate change: the basics

Neide Lemos


Reading time: three minutes

As of 3 October 2022, there are now over 2099 climate litigation cases globally and 2874 climate laws and policies – of which around 80 have been filed against governments, globally. This blog post is an introduction to climate change and the work lawyers are doing to combat this growing threat.

What is climate change?

Climate change is the broad term for the long-term shift in temperature and global weather patterns. It’s responsible for the increase in global temperature, increased local flooding, severe weather, rising sea levels and the increase in the cost of living.

So, what causes climate change? Climate change is attributed to burning fossil fuels, deforestation, livestock farming, use of land and much more. These factors cause an increase in greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). These gasses get trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing numerous issues mentioned above. Practically, solutions range from switching to renewable energy, electric cars, limiting deforestation and more. As there’s an increasing expectation for businesses to act, lawyers must take a proactive approach to tackling climate change.

The Climate Change Act 2008

First, let’s look at the Climate Change Act of 2008 which was given royal assent on 26 November 2008. This has been the key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to tackle the threats of climate change. The Act imposes a legal duty on the government to take a proactive and operational approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The 2050 target commits the government to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% of its 1990 levels. In the legal industry, the Net Zero Lawyers Alliance was formed to commit to achieving this target, with interim targets set for 2030.

But what is net zero? It refers to a balance between the amount of greenhouse gases, such as carbon, that we put into the atmosphere and the removal of emissions from the atmosphere – this is said to add up to zero so that we are no longer adding greenhouse gas emissions through reduction measures.

Since the inception of the Climate Change Act 2008, there has been a landmark ruling in the case involving R(oao Friends of the Earth et al.) v State Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The court ruled the government’s climate change strategy as “unlawful” for the breach of sections 13 and 14 of the Climate Change Act and section 149 of the Equality Act 2010. Specifically in relation to the Climate Change Act 2008, the claimants argued that sections 13 and 14 of the Climate Change Act 2008 are incompatible with the Human Right Act 1998 for failing to implement climate framework legislation.

What can lawyers do to support climate change?

As businesses become increasingly aware of the threat of climate change, they’ll seek lawyers who reflect the same values to tackle the threat of climate change. Nowadays, a dedicated climate change team can be found in many law firms and while every practice area can involve work that contributes to driving climate change, environmental lawyers focus on tackling the threat of climate change. This can be through advising clients on legal issues relating to clean air or global warming, working on renewable energy projects and even litigating environmental crime cases.

Raising awareness through the advice given to clients not only allows a lawyer to work in the client’s best interests, but also fulfils their business goals. Often, lawyers work with their clients to mitigate the risk of causing climate change. The work includes monitoring the regulation of a corporation's policies to help the environment to recover. Generally, this involves drafting, reviewing, and amending climate change clauses to ensure that the contract is contributing toward net zero goals.

It'll be interesting to see how climate change and the law continue to work together in the future.

For more on net zero and the legal profession, check out this Commercial Question from Bevan Brittan LLP.