Should lawyers be shouldering greater responsibility in averting a climate crisis? Vandana Chatlani reports

THE INTERGOVERNMENTAL Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body

for assessing the science related to climate change, published a damning report in August 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.

“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.”

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.”

Addressing the General Assembly of the American Bar Association at its Hybrid Annual Meeting in August, the US special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, stressed the urgent role that lawyers must play in averting further climate destruction. “You are all climate lawyers now, whether you want to be or not,” he said.

Kerry is not the first to highlight the vital role of the legal community in combating environmental risks, and he is unlikely to be the last. Lawyers will be called on to aid those displaced by natural disasters, assist clients in planning for greener energy to lower emissions, and accelerate energy transition goals to make decarbonisation a reality.

China’s Green policy initiatives

Governmental regulation and policy changes have been crucial to meeting climate and sustainability development goals. The Paris Agreement of 2015 was the first step towards multilateral co-operation on achieving climate neutrality.

This legally binding international treaty seeks to limit global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, ideally to 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels. A key goal of the agreement is for parties to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible.

Both India and China are parties to the Paris accord, along with 189 other countries. China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060, with an aim to reach peak emissions before 2030.


Environmental law charity ClientEarth has been working to support the central government’s efforts to strengthen environmental governance. Its work has included building judicial capacity and co-operating with the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate to provide support and expertise on policymaking and international experience relating to carbon peaking and neutrality.

The MEE has issued a series of carbon market regulations, a policy document on co-ordinating climate and environmental work, as well as a document on mobilising climate finance. The State Council has also issued a guiding opinion on building a low-carbon circular economy

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