Law in a changing climate

On Monday 21st November, we were delighted to welcome our panels of speakers from the legal profession, who spoke about the challenges and opportunities climate change presents, how lawyers are addressing these issues, and personal reflections on their own careers and advice for those wishing to enter environmental law.

• Stephen Hockman QC, Head of Chambers at Six Pump Court and Director of the International Court for the Environment Coalition
• Gita Parihar, Head of Legal at Friends of the Earth
• Michael Hutchinson, Partner and Head of the Environment Group at Mayer Brown

The extent of the climate change problem that the world now faces was presented in stark terms. It was described as ‘multifaceted’ and an issue requiring a complete overhaul of the economic system and the society in which we live, in a quickly vanishing time scale. All three speakers stressed the importance of not just viewing climate change as a scientific problem, but as Stephen termed a ‘politico-legal problem’ – an issue of justice, rights and the distribution of resources. And it is these dimensions of climate change that are most unsuited to our current institutions and decision-making framework – one that is short-termist and engrossed in economic performance.

Examples of this conflict between long-term and immediate impacts were given by Gita. Friends of the Earth are currently carrying out a judicial review challenge on the Government’s decisions to scrap solar subsidies before the consultation period has ended. Not only is this potentially unlawful, it is also denying communities the right to have access to renewable technologies. Gita is also currently working on the upcoming climate change negotiations that are taking place in Durban this year, and once again, economic concerns seem to be taking priority over environmental justice and climate change action. Hopes for a legally binding treaty to replace the greatly criticised Kyoto protocol are diminishing by the day.

However, Michael was keen to point out that a lot of work is currently being done under such existing frameworks, which is having a positive impact. For instance, international law firms, such as Mayer Brown, are responsible for helping to implement the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and Clean Development Mechanism, by determining the ownership of carbon credits. A lot of work is also being done on the UK’s Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) in helping firms meet energy efficiency performance targets, and also in encouraging investment (particularly from Asian markets) in renewable technologies in order to meet the targets set by the Renewable Energy Directive. These pieces of litigation, along with the Climate Change Act 2008, are unlikely to succeed unless enforceable legal requirements are introduced.

The current inadequacy of institutions to meet the challenge of climate change was addressed by our speakers, who proposed a variety of future changes. Stephen is currently working on developing an International Court for the Environment, which would consist of a body of jurists and scientists who could pass judgment on the way in which we are failing to achieve climate justice and change public opinion. Whilst Gita spoke about how the world can incorporate principles of sustainable development and intergenerational justice by introducing an Ombudsman for Future Generations, just like Hungary.

In terms of a career in environmental law, each of our speakers described the variety and interest they enjoy in their day to day work and how much it has grown and will continue to grow in the coming years. Michael predicted that by 2020, an elite group of international firms will dominate the legal profession, one which will be tending more and more towards Asia, and catering for more niche issues, including climate change. Stephen spoke about the need to develop jurisprudence in this area, to impart clarity in an otherwise uncertain world. Such a dynamic and competitive area requires graduates to have an openness to the multifaceted nature of environmental issues, a willingness to embrace new innovations, and to possess optimism and resilience.