By Jeanette Baumann
Lawyers play a crucial part in building and defining the framework of environmental action — they advise, communicate, represent, conduct research and analysis, prepare legal documents and interpret the law. The huge potential of legal action to provide solutions to the climate catastrophe heightens the need to focus on the lawyer’s carbon handprint and unleash the inherent multiplier effect lawyers can have for the betterment of society. As the Pledge argues, we need lawyers to integrate environmental action into all of their activities.
Carbon footprint no more — Transitioning to a carbon handprint
Huge amounts of money have been spent on advertising to encourage all parts of society (including lawyers) to look at their “Carbon Footprint”. We must, we’re told, reduce our individual impact on the environment; we must individually take responsibility. So, should we feel guilty about our carbon footprint?
There’s nothing wrong with trying to reduce our environmental impact. In fact, we all should. But focussing on the carbon footprint is a trap our generation has walked into, a trap set by big oil. It is a concept created by British Petroleum (BP) to distract from their continued production of fossil fuels. It is a finger pointing to the big bad consumer, to make us believe that we are guilty if we don’t watch our steps. The climate crisis becomes our problem, but where does that guilt lead us? Well, it doesn’t lead us to meaningful change. The systemic guilt of this concept has left us in trance; holding us back from real action. Because—and here’s the crunch—the supposed solutions pushed by Big Oil to reduce our carbon footprint, such as recycling, won’t save us.
On the contrary, they divert our attention from the fact that since 1988, 71% of global emissions have been created by a handful of fossil fuel companies – BP among them. It is these companies that for many decades have profited from climate-destroying fossil fuels while blocking the development of energy alternatives. This despite the fact that the fossil fuel majors knew the reality of global heating better and earlier than the rest of us. The change we need is their change, but adding up the carbon in our sandwich, our bus journey, and our reusable coffee cup keeps us occupied, thinking that changing our lifestyles will someday somehow “add up”. It won’t. In the end, it is, as Bill McKibben wrote, the “multiplication” of our efforts which will “save the day.”
But, save the day how? It’s actually quite an easy equation. Think about what can happen when 100 people decide to really engage, mobilise and bring about political action? Fridays for Future is just one example of how such engagement can set things in motion, driving change across the whole of society. The carbon handprint is the way to catalyse and measure such action.
A carbon handprint is the impact you leave on society by reducing large amounts of emissions, for example by blocking fossil fuel projects or changing laws and policies that create or enable emissions. While the carbon footprint merely adds up all the negative impacts of our lives, weighing us down with the tonnes of carbon on our backs, the carbon handprint measures the emissions we enable others to reduce, remove, or avoid, and does so in million tons of CO2.
How to — The applicability to lawyers
Of course, we can all praise a law firm for implementing energy-saving technologies and reducing its travel, but it’s fiddling while Rome burns if the firm is lobbying for fossil fuel companies, helping to carve out loopholes for plastics, or defending new fossil-heavy infrastructure in the courts. Its carbon footprint might look great, but it is not even telling half the story.
We need to see their handprint.
This message is starting to be heard: the challenge to accelerate climate action has been taken up by professionals all over the world – including legal professionals. As early as 2012, the Guardian spoke of the importance of law in laying the groundwork for sustainable business practices on issues like energy management. Now, initiatives like the Lawyers for a Sustainable Economy Initiative focus on driving the legal industry to adapt to sustainability challenges, while the International Association of Young Lawyers believes in sustainability as a transformational force for the legal profession.
Increasingly, all eyes are focusing on climate conscious lawyering and the lawyer who adapts to the new circumstances created by the climate crisis. Judge Brian J. Preston has described five ways for lawyers to be “climate conscious” in their daily legal practices. He emphasizes, inter alia, the importance of taking a holistic legal approach by bringing climate concerns into cases on intersecting areas of the law (such as human rights law or land law); and the overarching need for lawyers to adhere to the ethical responsibilities of the profession by pursuing a practice grounded in the imperative of justice, including climate justice.
In short, every step of a lawyer’s work can have an impact – from writing climate-conscious contract clauses, over advising clients, to litigating cases—the potential is vast. The World Lawyers’ Pledge gives specific suggestions about how every legal professional can be more conscious in the course of their activities–and how their work affects others–in ways both small and large.
Simply being climate neutral in our own activities is not enough, what we really should aspire to is positive impact. Learn how you can create a bigger carbon handprint by exploring some of our projects. One of them is Climate Litigation.
Climate litigation can be a game changer
Perhaps the most eye-catching and one of the most impactful ways in which lawyers can contribute is in their role as climate litigators.
In the last decades, climate litigation has become a global strategic tool to accelerate climate action and remedy governmental inaction. Legal victories and key precedents have been set, like the duty of care established by the Urgenda v. Netherlands case, or the requirement to implement existing domestic climate laws brought forward by Leghari v. Federation of Pakistan. These cascading victories have enabled and inspired many other lawyers to go forward with their claims.
In a 2020 Report, UNEP identifies six categories of climate lawsuits. They range from cases battling fossil fuel projects, holding corporations as well as governments accountable for their lack of ambition or greenwashing, to those invoking climate-related human rights and demanding adaptation action. Climate litigation has mobilised and intersected with land law, business law and many other legal fields. In the future, no area of law will remain untouched by it.
The number of cases has substantially grown over the last decade and will continue to do so. With a huge number of cases already decided and many more pending around the world, getting up to speed can be daunting. But LINGO has got you covered.
Who we are, and how we can help
LINGO stands for Leave it in the Ground Initiative – we are a non-profit working for a fast transition to a world powered by 100% renewable energies. The road to this goal does not lead via the false solution of compensating one’s carbon footprint by buying carbon offsets. Carbon offsetting only gives the most privileged a license to continue to pollute our planet on the flimsy promise of prevented emissions elsewhere. Rather, fossil fuels must be left in the ground.
At LINGO, we do things like publishing the Fossil Endgame Blog Series, organize to create a post-oil future for Mexican National Oil Company PEMEX, defuse “carbon bombs”, blowing the cover of the gas industry which is selling dangerous methane as “natural gas”, and the list continues.
Like so many others, we’re now turning our attention to lawyers and the multiplier power of the law. We support climate litigation and lawyers’ climate education through our climate litigation Wiki. The Wiki is an ideal resource for lawyers seeking to develop their ‘legal carbon handprint’. With pages on arguments, strategies, scientific evidence, global comparisons, and obstacles, as well as concise and easy-to-use summaries of key cases from all over the world, the Wiki is a great way to get acquainted with the field of climate litigation, find resources, and learn about strategies and trends in climate litigation.
Check it out here.
Becoming a bit more familiar with climate litigation can get you started on your way to a big carbon handprint with an immense multiplier effect in protecting our climate, the planet, and its people!
In the spirit of the Pledge, we will from now on ask all blog authors the same question aimed at identifying the exact points where their field of law could contribute to fighting climate change:
Jeanette Baumann joined LINGO in August 2021 as part of the climate litigation research team. She studies law at the University of Heidelberg with a special interest in human rights and the environment.