Do lawyers have an increased responsibility in averting a climate catastrophe? Vandana Chatlani reports

In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body for assessing the science related to climate change, published a damning report on the climate crisis and warned of dangerous levels of global warming unless “deep reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades”.

UN Secretary General António Guterres called the report “a code red for humanity” and offered a bleak summary: “The evidence is irrefutable. Greenhouse gas emissions are choking our planet and placing billions of people in danger … We must act decisively now to avert a climate catastrophe.”

The IPCC report confirms what we have known for years – we are destroying our planet. Nature is sounding its alarm with raging fires, floods, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, scorching temperatures and lethal pollution.

Philippe Joubert Founder and CEO Earth on Board“We are reaching our planet boundaries in terms of destruction of biodiversity, CO2 emissions, deforestation and much more,” says Philippe Joubert, the founder and CEO of Earth on Board, an ecosystem of organisations dedicated to educating company boards on sustainability and good governance.

Many argue that lawyers also have a vital role to play in protecting our planet and that failure to do so will have dire consequences.

“A lot of hate was initially directed at the oil and gas companies,” says one Asia-based law firm partner who wished to remain anonymous. “Then it started to shift to companies such as Nestlé and Mars, which were purchasing unsustainable palm oil leading to deforestation.

“Criticism was then levelled at banks and other institutions financing oil and gas, palm oil and coal projects. Even accounting and insurance firms have been targeted for facilitating destructive activities for social expansion. So it is only logical that law firms would get hit at some point.”

Global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion is an example of this. In August, the group splashed blood-red paint on financial institutions and law firms in London that they believed were liable for investing in and driving up fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement.

Lawyers could face severe consequences if they fail to speak up when companies engage in wrongdoing, even if this appears legal. “Lawyers must be sustainability literate and cannot stay silent,” says Joubert, who was formerly the CEO of Alstom Power. “They have to ensure their clients account for the cost of their emissions and invest in reducing these emissions. They cannot hide behind their responsibilities as advisers … otherwise they are culpable, too. They cannot say they did not know, or that they are neutral.”

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