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The climate change crisis - what can lawyers do?

The climate change crisis - what can lawyers do?

Savannah Taylor


Reading time: six minutes

The climate change crisis – what's happening?

Climate change is a huge crisis affecting everyone around the world. There's a huge threat of global warming to the planet, and it's up to businesses and governments to make an impact. The recent heatwave in the UK, with temperatures reaching up to 40°C in some areas, shows the impacts of climate change – people suffering, fires starting, and a country that cannot cope with the extreme heat.

Climate change not only affects the weather, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that one meter of sea level rise could wipe out 15% of Pacific Islands, which would mean the destruction of homes and cultures.

The latest climate change conference – COP26 – saw governments across the globe agreeing aims to increase the global temperature to no more than 1.5°C, which IPCC climate experts believe will make a huge difference. The focus in 2022 is to ensure that net zero targets and pledges that businesses make are being followed. The best way to show this is to adopt externally verified science-based targets, disclose climate data, and set interim targets, not just long-term targets for 2050. Despite the 1.5°C targets, Linklaters LLP's environmental social and corporate governance (ESG) outlook evidence has shown that countries’ climate targets are likely to lead to a 1.8°C increase, or a 2.4°C increase at worst, exceeding the COP26 target.

The biggest contributors to this are industrialised nations, who account for 60% of the annual CO2 emissions, but only account for 20% of the world’s population. The USA is a significant contributor, being responsible for 25% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. If the negative effects of climate change are to be halted, these countries must play a big role.

For more on environmental law, read this Practice Area Profile with Caroline Bush from Osborne Clarke LLP.

Can the law/lawyers impact climate change? 

Environmental law and legislation are powerful tools that can positively impact the effects of climate change. The law can be used to hold governments, businesses, and individuals to account for the damage they've caused that contributes to climate change. A major effort to use the law to green our planet is The Chancery Lane Project – an initiative which started in the UK but has spread across the world. It now has 1,300 legal professionals and 275 organisations involved, collaborating to develop new, practical contract clauses to create more sustainable business agreements, and model laws to fight climate change. The more climate-friendly contract clauses aim to encourage clients to adopt more forward-thinking approaches and implement environmental initiatives into their contracts – meaning businesses will be more conscious of their impact on climate change.

The Chancery Lane Project has shown the power of lawyers, as legal advisors, and contract drafters, in making a positive impact on climate change through the approach they advise businesses to take. Lawyers can advise clients on their strategies to make them more biodiverse and reduce their carbon emissions. However, as lawyers only have an advisory role, the impact they make stops there, and it's up to businesses to implement these climate-friendly schemes.

People’s decisions to mitigate their effects on climate change are heavily dependent on the state of the law. Mitigating the effects of climate change globally is dependent on the laws in the most developed nations. Denmark utilises the law to help tackle climate change, with the establishment of The Climate Act 2019, which set a target to reduce Denmark’s emissions by 70% in 2030 compared to 1990. The UK has a similar Act – The Climate Change Act – which also sets out emissions reduction targets that the UK must comply with legally. In Canada, British Columbia introduced a carbon tax, aiming to reduce carbon emissions. These are all examples of countries making major policy decisions through a ‘green lens’, trying to mitigate their impact on climate change.

The law can also play a role in disputes and litigation on climate change. People can attempt to sue governments or businesses for their negative effects on climate change. This appears to have low success rates in America, but in the UK, there has been a success. For example, the UK Court of Appeal held that plans to extend Heathrow Airport were unlawful because they failed to take the Paris Climate Agreement into account – showing the UK’s commitment to ensuring climate targets are complied with and holding businesses to account when they fail to comply. Environmental activists have also been using climate change litigation as a means of putting pressure on governments and corporations to meet emission reduction goals. Lawyers are increasingly called upon to advise on corporate governance and litigation risks according to Jacquelyn MacLennan, partner at White & Case LLP.

What are some law firms already doing?

Latham & Watkins has one of the most significant and most successful climate change and environmental markets practices globally, showing the firm's priority towards climate change. The firm’s climate change practice provides clients with a combination of litigation representation, transactional advice, and policy advocacy, and the lawyers at the firm have been directly involved in the design and adoption of climate legislation. Additionally, they have a clean energy law report, which is regularly updated to keep others informed on significant developments and trends in the field. The success of their climate change practice shows the firm’s commitment to ensuring climate change is tackled.

DWF Group Plc takes lead in ensuring ESG matters are at the top of its agenda. As a listed company, DWF is required to report and is rated on ESG requirements, meaning it faces unique pressures to meet sustainability targets. DWF is committed to keeping emissions under 1.5°C and becoming net-zero by 2050 – trying to abide by the aims set out during COP26. Kirsty Rogers, global head of ESG at the firm, stated that DWF is adopting a science-based approach and are looking at emissions across the global offices. She said that DWF’s Manchester office is already 100% renewable in terms of energy, and it is the largest office. Not only is the firm dedicated to achieving ESG targets, the lawyers at the firm, through their advisory approach, help clients meet reporting targets.

Shoosmiths is a very innovative and forward-thinking firm. Peter Duff, chairperson, stated that people at Shoosmiths feel it's their responsibility to help make the planet a better place for future generations. The firm has been tracking its ESG impacts since 2012, has a commitment to decarbonise the businesses, and has set a target for its operations to achieve net zero status by 2025. Shoosmiths shows it has serious commitments to achieving net zero targets, and how it's becoming a more sustainable business compared to others.

There's more information on how lawyers can help address climate change through their work in this Commercial Question: 'Climate change and the legal profession'.