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

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.