Climate change isn't an issue for politicians alone - it's time for businesses and the legal profession to step up

Lawyers have a significant role not just in advising on incoming energy and climate regulation, but also in developing new structures and precedents, and in advising on new aspects of corporate governance and risk management.

For decades politicians have looked to a cadre of scientists, economists, think tanks and NGOs for help in devising international and national responses to the challenges of climate change. There were relatively few opportunities for business or the legal profession to influence the debate and there seemed to be little appreciation of how remote the world of UN climate negotiations seemed to the general public and to many in business. Often seen as a political issue, in order to implement climate change policies effectively industry needs to be instructed and incentivised by a body of clear, collective regulation if it is to make the long term investments required to lower our dependency on fossil fuels and lower global carbon emission.

The scale and the uncertainties around climate change meant that regulating was never going to be easy. The global downturn has also, inevitably, diminished the vitality of the debate. Governments, to their credit, have continued to regulate but have in some cases appeared slow to appreciate the importance of commercial certainty. There has also been a tendency to underestimate the impact of regulatory tinkering on willingness to invest. Many policy initiatives have involved a considerable learning process in relation to the interaction of environmental constraints and market forces. This has included regimes for trading carbon credits, which required the elision of environmental and financial markets expertise, and schemes for reducing emissions from the built environment which have struggled with the implications of landlord - tenant arrangements.

In response to these challenges, the Legal Sector Alliance on Climate Change, an association of 270 commercial law firms, has argued publicly for effective regulation in relation to climate change and low carbon energy. In its most recent communiqué eight principles were set out that policy makers should take into account in formulating new policy and regulation, which includes recommendations relating to investment incentives and the standardisation of products and reporting standards.

There are signs that the mood is shifting towards working with business. Private sector consultation on the development of new UN mechanisms is being encouraged. COP 19 in Warsaw has been promoted as a "business COP", with Poland encouraging the UN to bridge the gap between the policies being shaped through negotiations and the role of business in implementing and financing these obligations. Lawyers can decode and help shape the debate in these areas.

Because the scientific community is in broad agreement on the reality of climate change, it is a risk that companies have to consider as a matter of good management. This makes climate change one among many factors that businesses consider in relation to new projects, transactions, or as part of their risk management and governance processes.

For most sectors climate change is an area comparable to other more traditional issues on which lawyers advise. For the energy sector and for energy intensive business, the impact of the policy response to climate change is likely to be more profound, albeit over a long timescale.  While the primary energy sources for the foreseeable future are fossil fuels, the market share for renewables continues to grow and there is an developing focus on the energy efficiency of buildings, industrial operations and products. These changes are creating new business models, additional issues in transactions and operational challenges. For these industries, lawyers have a significant role not just in advising on incoming regulation, but also in developing new structures and precedents, and in advising on new aspects of corporate governance and risk management. So as the volume of regulation relevant to climate change evolves, expect the role of lawyers to be much broader and more important.

The Legal Sector Alliance on Climate Change has set out eight principles for formulating new policy and regulation. Photograph: Getty Images.

Co-CEO of DLA Piper

Getty
Show Hide image

Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.