No Planet B: Surge in legal disputes concerning climate change.

August 1, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

An LSE study has shown that the number of climate change disputes has more than doubled over the past five years, as governments are pursued for failing to comply with green commitments. 

What does this mean?

In the 28-year period from 1986 to 2014, 834 cases involving climate change were filed globally. Since 2015,  the world has seen more than 1,000 cases. This surge in climate change litigation comes in the wake of the Paris Agreement, the legally binding international treaty on climate change, adopted in December 2015, which entered into force in November 2016. In 2019 there was an increase in the role of litigation in the work of climate activist groups, including cases connected to the large-scale climate protests that took place across the world. The largest number of cases have been filed in the USA, but there have been 73 cases in the UK and 115 in Australia.

The study conducted by the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment showed that more than 80% of these climate change cases have been brought against governments. Charges include breaking climate commitments, breaching human rights and often highlight the financial dangers of climate change. While 33% of the cases had unfavourable outcomes and 9% were deemed to have no impact on climate policy, 58% of the cases had outcomes in favour of climate change action. For example, following the success of the Urgenda Climate Case in 2015 (the first case in which citizens established that their government has a legal duty to prevent climate change), the Dutch government pledged to reduce the capacity of its remaining coal power stations by 75% and put in place measures worth €3 billion to reduce Dutch emissions by 2020. 

What's the big picture effect?

So far it has principally been governments that have been pursued in climate change cases. However, it is thought likely that other bodies will come under fire soon, such as financial markets and big businesses

Perhaps in response to this increasing trend of climate change litigation and as part of an increasing focus on ESG, many organisations are beginning to assess their environmental impact and looking for ways to improve. The coronavirus pandemic has certainly forced many organisations to reevaluate their responsibility to the planet. Working from home, with an increase in electronic working and a decrease in travel, has seen many new greener working models introduced. 

Recent developments in environmental initiatives led by lawyers suggest that climate change is becoming an important issue in the legal sector. Lawyers for Net Zero was set up this year with the goal of guiding in-house lawyers in helping their organisations deliver on climate change commitments. They have five principles: champion net-zero internally, deliver rapid practical action, learn and share key knowledge, influence suppliers and champion net-zero externally. Many legal teams have been starting with small changes, such as reducing their paper use by switching to electronic signatures and discouraging unnecessary printing. 

Law firms have also been looking to improve their environmental impact. In June Mishcon de Reya launched a Greener Litigation Pledge. This represents a commitment to reducing the environmental impact of dispute resolution. Firms who have signed the pledge include Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Simmons & Simmons, HFW, Addleshaw Goddard and Kennedys. 

It is becoming clear that organisations are not acting exclusively for personal gain, although a desire to avoid litigation will certainly play a role in motivating these schemes. People are waking up to the climate crisis our planet is facing and have a genuine desire to improve the situation for their global community and for the future. 

Report written by Elizabeth Ambrose 

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