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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.

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

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.