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Environmental law: what you need to know

updated on 11 January 2022

Dear Oracle

I am interested in sustainability and a career in environmental law, what do I need to know about this area?

The Oracle replies

Reading time: five minutes

With issues such as climate change and environmental activism taking centre stage in the media on an increasingly regular basis, environmental law has become a popular and appealing work area for aspiring lawyers.

In a recent episode of The LawCareers.Net Podcast, we spoke to Caroline Bush, associate director in the environment team at Osborne Clarke LLP. She spoke about her work, the changes happening in the practice area, key terms that you should be aware of, and what those looking to secure a career in environmental law should know.

What’s driving change?

Environmental law is currently a somewhat unique practice area in terms of what’s driving clients’ needs. “What’s been really interesting from a lawyer’s perspective is that there is still not that much regulation. As a lawyer, our bread and butter is the black letter law, which is usually what would drive our clients’ interests because, obviously, they have to comply with the law. However, for our clients the interest in environmental law is primarily market-driven, rather than based on existing regulations.”

This means that investors – a crucial part of how businesses make money – have become much more interested in environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors, particularly the ‘E’, and that pressure has turned up the heat for companies in terms of their environmental responsibility.

“Another stakeholder that is driving engagement with our clients is consumers,” Caroline explains, referencing the boom in green fashion in recent years. “There is a consumer appetite for sustainability and companies that aren’t following that risk losing customers.”

Companies’ internal structures are also driving environmental change, with employees, shareholders and even directors becoming more involved in these conversations than ever before.

For Caroline and her team, this means operating in an area without precedent: “Unusually, we’re being asked to help strategically in an area where there isn’t much regulation. There is no doubt that regulation will come as this becomes more of an issue for companies, but it’s a really fascinating time to be advising clients.”

Key terms

Caroline defines some key environmental terms in relation to her work with clients and businesses:

Decarbonisation: Taking carbon out of your operations as much as possible, mainly through reducing your carbon emissions.

Carbon emissions: What you emit in carbon – for example, via the electricity or heating you use in your office, or transport costs such as flying staff to meetings across the word.

Net zero: The aim to reduce your carbon emissions as much as possible and to offset any carbon you continue to emit. This could be by investing in carbon offsetting projects such as planting trees or maintaining peatland.

Net zero target: The date by which you aim to have achieved carbon net zero.

Biodiversity no net loss: The planning concept that means when you build a new development, you must prove that it’s not going to be to the detriment to local habitat. If you are doing harm, you must mitigate it elsewhere.

Biodiversity net gain: Instead of the bar being at zero (as with no net loss), you have to evidence through your development that you are increasing biodiversity by 10% or more. You can achieve that in one of three ways:

  • onsite gain – setting aside land on the site and working with a consultant to achieve 10% net gain;
  • offsite gain – using land in the local area to achieve 10% net gain; or
  • buying credits – paying money to the secretary of state who will use it for biodiversity net gain.

You will have to evidence the 10% net gain when applying for planning permission and maintain it for at least 30 years.

How is the law changing?

The principles of biodiversity net gain are set out in the Environment Act 2021 and are due to come into force in late 2023. Caroline explains that “The Environment Act is predominantly a result of Brexit. Because all our core environmental obligations were in EU law, the government had decided this is a good opportunity to focus on our own environmental regulation and to bring in a meaningful piece of legislation.

“The Environment Act will have a big impact on our clients, and they need to prepare for it. For example, there is a lot in the Act about minimising waste products, particularly plastic waste, and also stringent air pollution emission targets for the transport industry.”

But none of this is set in stone: “The Environment Act is a framework and how it will impact our clients on a day-to-day basis is not entirely fixed yet. To say that it’s a really exciting time to be an environmental lawyer is an understatement.”

Getting into environmental law

The first and most important prerequisite to becoming an environmental lawyer is to have a genuine passion for it. As Caroline says, “I’ve seen a real uptake of interest from vac scheme students in environmental law. Doubtless, it’s because so many aspiring lawyers have grown up with these real issues, and they have a deep-set interest and passion for it.”

Crucially, interested students should speak to an environmental lawyer and find out exactly what they do. Although Caroline and her team are involved in innovative and exciting projects, they also assist with due diligence for big corporate clients, which not everyone will enjoy.

“It’s important to really understand what you’re looking for and what firms can offer in this area,” Caroline advises. “At Osborne Clarke, decarbonisation and sustainability is a real focus for us, but not every firm might have a dedicated environmental team. Do your research and get under the skin of what the environment team at a firm actually consists of.”

“And, of course,” Caroline summarises, “you should have an awareness of the key environmental news stories. But that’s not difficult – they’re everywhere at the moment!”

You can listen to the full podcast episode with Caroline Bush on Spotify, Soundcloud, podcast apps and the Podcast hub on LawCareers.Net.

Find out more about Caroline’s work and environmental law with her practice area profile.