Time to walk the talk
In what was a first for South Asia, the Uttarakhand High Court in 2017 ruled that the Ganga and Yamuna rivers, and their catchment areas and tributaries, had rights as legal persons. Later, in 2020, the Punjab and Haryana High Court said a lake in Chandigarh had similar rights.
While the Supreme Court has stayed the 2017 order, that such orders are being passed at all is an indication that courts are willing to “walk the talk” on protecting the environment. Yet the all important question is: Are investors and other decision makers paying attention to how courts view environmental matters?
Increasing instances of weather-related disasters also leave no doubt that inaction is no longer an option. For governments, the upcoming UN climate change conference in November in Glasgow, COP26, will be another opportunity to act to counter rising global temperatures and deliver on the promise of previous climate talks. But with existing divisions between countries likely to linger, and if almost three decades of governments coming together to secure the future of the planet is anything to go by, chances are there is still some way to go. People with clout will need to take on board the fact that business as usual cannot continue, and people at the grassroots level will need to push for change.
As our Cover story details, lawyers may well have an increased responsibility in this respect. Speaking to the American Bar Association, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, recently stressed that lawyers have a role in averting further climate destruction. “You are all climate lawyers now, whether you want to be or not,” said Kerry.
The bottom line for lawyers is to act in the best interest of their clients, and for many this will mean ensuring companies see environmental compliance as meaningful, rather than simply a tick-box exercise. “If you don’t carry out these duties, you are being negligent and putting your company in danger,” says Philippe Joubert, the founder and CEO of Earth on Board.
Be that as it may, there are also opportunities for lawyers on both contentious matters and general advisory. As Annette Magnusson, a co-founder of environmental consultancy Climate Change Counsel, says, learning to proactively introduce a green perspective in contract drafting and agreements is a great way that lawyers can make a difference. So, are lawyers up to this challenge?
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