COP26 has been delayed, but lawyers can’t duck the issue of climate change - Alison Macnab and Gillian Mawdsley

Today marks the start of Global Climate Change Week and we are encouraging the legal profession to get involved in our preparations for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow next year.

Alison Macnab is a members of the Policy Team, Law Society of Scotland
Alison Macnab is a members of the Policy Team, Law Society of Scotland

Like so many events in 2020, this important conference was cancelled as a result of Covid-19. It has been rescheduled for November 2021, but its delay does not mean Scotland’s legal profession should postpone thinking about the role and responsibilities that law and lawyers play in the work to be done around climate change.

COP26 has been described, scientifically and politically, as a critical moment to focus attention on the climate change agenda. COP26 intends to unite action globally by strengthening countries’ ability to handle the impact of climate change and to monitor progress towards delivery of the 2015 Paris Agreement commitments. These include keeping the global temperature rise below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels, with efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5ºC.

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So, what is the Law Society of Scotland doing?

Gillian Mawdsley is a members of the Policy Team, Law Society of Scotland

Earlier in 2020, we set up a working group to consider COP26 and climate change. This group aims to provide policy direction for the Society on climate change while raising the profile of climate change within the profession. It will also help to identify opportunities for the Society to engage with other stakeholders in relation to COP26 and climate change issues, and consider the practical and commercial impact, security and civil order/policing issues, effects on solicitors’ businesses and the city generally during the conference.

The staging of the conference in Scotland provides an opportunity to consider more fully the profession’s responsibilities to climate change – whether as individual solicitors advising clients or with our professional duties to our member solicitors and our policy work. This group represents a wide range of interests and specialisms from across the legal profession including planning, environment, energy, marine, finance, technology and criminal law. The breadth of these cross-cutting policy interests aligns with the United Kingdom’s key COP26 priorities of adaptation and resilience; nature; energy transition; clean road transport; and finance and demonstrate the breadth of areas affected by the climate change debate.

Some legal interests in climate change issues are obvious. Solicitors advise clients on the implications arising from the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 as well as the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019, which sets net zero emissions targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Significantly, it outlines Scotland’s delivery commitment on the Paris Agreement, coming back to the objectives of the COP26 agenda.

Poverty and financial issues arise where funding is being provided to help poorer countries cut their greenhouse gas emissions. The UK has committed to provide £11.6 billion from 2021-25 to help those countries cut carbon and cope with the impacts of climate breakdown.

Some policy interests may be less clear cut. For example, public safety and security implications arise around the conference itself, given the size of COP26 and the number of delegates being expected. The venue at the Scottish Events Campus in Glasgow is to be handed over to the United Nations for the conference’s duration, so any crimes which take place on site will be investigated by Police Scotland but prosecuted under international law.

We are not alone in discussing the role of lawyers when it comes to climate change. Increasingly law firms have dedicated teams on climate changes and related issues. Our work follows the International Bar Association which on issuing their Crisis Climate Statement called on the legal profession to ‘be prepared to play a leading role in maintaining and strengthening the rule of law and supporting responsible, enlightened governance in an era marked by a climate crisis’.

It is important that the profession is not only aware of what they may need to do at work to manage their environmental impact and in advising their clients, but of their role in the development of policies that will have an impact on all of us as citizens.

Developing a programme to raise awareness of and interest in COP26 and of climate change across the profession will build on our collective knowledge and understanding to help us plan for the future in an era of change.

Alison Macnab and Gillian Mawdsley are members of the Policy Team, Law Society of Scotland

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