Can Law Help Save The Planet?
As world leaders come together in Glasgow to make a plan on how to reduce their carbon emissions could law be used to hold them to account?
Environmental lawyer and ClientEarth founder James Thornton shares what needs to be done and how law can play a role in it.
Sat 30 Oct 2021
Five years ago in Paris, the nations of the world achieved something of the most profound importance.
They agreed that climate change was such a threat to the fabric of civilization that joint action was needed. In a spirit of global community, the Paris Agreement was forged.
The vision of the Paris Agreement was clear: each country would go home and design the way that it would help reduce the emissions that cause climate change.
Looking to its own economy and culture, its finances and needs, each country pledged to do what was needed to keep temperature rise to no more than 2C while aiming to keep the rise to no more than 1.5C.
Now, five years later, the world meets in Glasgow to take the next step.
And the pressure is on.
Consensus has emerged that time is short.
The most authoritative scientific assessments on climate change are made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Their recent assessment is sobering: time is running. We must stop using fossil fuels.
Recently the UN Environment Programme found, however, that countries are not quickly moving off fossil fuels.
Instead, oil and gas production is set to rise over the next two decades, and coal production is to fall only slightly.
At 2030, this business as the usual path would see the world burning twice the amount of fossil fuel we can allow ourselves if we are to hit our 1.5C target.
The power of the law
I’ll come back to what needs to happen in Glasgow.
Meantime I’d like to share my perspective.
I’m a lawyer who uses all the tools of the law to help move society in the right direction.
ClientEarth, the global environmental law group I founded, now works in Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States.
We work with hundreds of organisations in partnership because we know that people need to join together to solve global problems.
Governments and industry have the primary responsibility to make a rapid transition from the way we act now to a gentler, more sustainable way for us to live on the planet.
We know what we need to do: turn our backs on fossil fuels, and make our energy and transport powered by renewables.
For our agriculture, we need to break its chemical addiction and let it help regenerate nature.
For our forests, we need to protect the forests that we have and help forests regrow where they are damaged.
We need to protect living things on land and in the oceans, ensuring that large areas are safe for living things to replenish themselves.
We can crack the climate problem only if the world works togetherwe can crack the climate problem only if the world works together
How can law help save the planet?
Law is the rules of the game. The rules that societies agree to be bound by.
When you look at a society’s laws, you can see what that society values, because our laws embody our shared values.
As lawyers, we at ClientEarth work in parliaments to improve laws and make them stronger.
We work with governments who want to do the right thing and help them craft solutions to get there faster.
We help companies who want to lead find the changes they need to make and work out how to stop conduct that is harmful.
And we use the courts to enforce the law. We’ve used action in court to require countries all over Europe to clean up the dirty air that leads to premature deaths.
We’ve helped citizens across Europe to prevent new coal fired power plants from being built.
We’ve protected forests, rivers and wetlands.
We’re fighting now to hold countries to their fisheries laws so that there will be enough fish in the sea and fishers with jobs.
What we need in Glasgow
The pledges that countries have made under the Paris Agreement are not yet enough.
They would leave the world on course for a 3-4C temperature rise. That way leads to the end of civilisation as we know it.
So the leaders of the world know what they need to do in Glasgow. They need to make much deeper pledges to cut emissions.
Beyond pledges, they need to commit to action. Simple things could help: agree to end the use of coal soon, and agree to transition away from all fossil fuels in the near term.
Over 100 countries have now said they will be carbon neutral by 2050. This is the right thing to say.
When you look at the detail, though, not much is yet there. Real plans, meaningful plans, are not in place to get emissions down fast enough.
Costa Rica and Denmark have made the best progress.
They are real leaders in what can be done, and other countries should celebrate their efforts and join them.
There are some hopeful recent developments.
In September 2021, President Xi of China told the UN General Assembly that China would build no more coal plants outside China. Hundreds had been planned and were wiped out at a stroke.
We and many others had been working for this decision. It is of monumental importance. A recent analysis showed that this decision is the equivalent of the EU going carbon neutral.
Beyond solid movement on emissions cuts, the COP gives developed countries an opportunity to support the developing countries.
The transition in energy, industry, agriculture and nature protection that we need must become a joint enterprise of humanity.
No one will have a safe and sustainable world to live in unless we all have such a world.
The changes we need require investment on a large scale. The developing countries need financial help. They always did, but more so now. Their economies were much more severely impacted than developed economies by the global Covid pandemic.
The Paris Agreement led to a promise for developed countries to give $100 billion a year in climate assistance. So far this hasn’t happened.
It needs to for two reasons.
First, because this assistance is really needed, indeed much more is needed.
As importantly, we can crack the climate problem only if the world works together.
A failure to live up to this financial commitment is sorely eroding the trust that is needed to solve problems together.
A positive vision can help get the job done
Law is the most powerful way of shaping promises into rules to live by.
All the ambitions that will be aired at the COP need to be embodied in laws. And citizens must be given the right to hold their governments to account, to make sure they comply.
Companies too must be put on a path parallel to governments, and citizens given the right to hold them to account.
Beyond law, the most powerful tool is hope. We need to imagine together the future we want to create. We have the knowledge.
We need to find the will to create a positive future, imagine it in detail, and embody the detail in laws that we all live by.
James Thornton is an environmental lawyer and writer. He is the founding CEO of ClientEarth, a global environmental law charity.
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