ESG (environmental, social, and governance) is a hugely significant talking point at the moment. Whether that be for Pepsi making headlines after accusations of plastic pollution in New York, or for investment funds being told to avoid greenwashing in their naming process, the trend is clearly here to stay.
While the stories above relate mostly to large corporations coming under increased scrutiny for their environmental impact, countries are themselves being put into the spotlight at the moment by the United Nations. As those interested in public law will know, the direction which government policy takes in regard to climate action is often highly influential in terms of how companies are encouraged (or even forced) to act going forwards.
COP, the United Nations’ climate change conference held each year, is currently being hosted in Dubai for its 28th edition. The summit kicked off on November 30th and will last until December 12th. At this stage, we will look at some of the key moments so far, and situate them within the wider context.
Early on in the conference, a leaked video call saw the President of COP28, Sultan Al Jaber (owner of the UAE’s state-owned oil company), announce that he felt there was ‘no science’ suggesting that a total end to fossil fuel usage would be needed in order to meet international targets to restrict global warming to 1.5C. Al Jaber would later attempt to clarify his comments and say they were taken out of context, but reputational damage had certainly already been done by this stage.
King Charles gave a notable speech at the opening of the summit, stating that:
‘I pray with all my heart that Cop28 will be another critical turning point towards genuine transformational action at a time when, already, as scientists have been warning for so long, we are seeing alarming tipping points being reached’
Charles has long been known for his love of environmental causes, having famously converted his Aston Martin sports car to run on a mixture of wine and cheese components (at the summit, he noted that ‘I’ve spent a large portion of my life trying to warn of the existential threats facing us over global warming’. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak expressed his support for Charles’ views, although recent developments in Conservative Party policy have caused some tension with the idea of prioritising climate change as an issue.
Just before the conference started, Pope Francis (a known activist in progressive areas such as climate action) released an official address from the Vatican City directed to COP28. He writes:
‘It has now become clear that the climate change presently taking place stems from the overheating of the planet, caused chiefly by the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to human activity, which in recent decades has proved unsustainable for the ecosystem’
The head of the Catholic Church previously sought to travel to attend the conference himself (demonstrating a significant and rather uncommon move for the Vatican), but ill-health led to delegates being sent in his place.
COP has been taking place since 1995, but only in more recent years has a pressure emerged to use the summit to make some form of tangible commitments on paper. This year, the focus is specifically on fossil fuel usage, and getting the approximately 200 countries in attendance to commit to the idea of reducing (or even eliminating) their reliance on it.
As of this weekend, a mid-negotiation draft form of this agreement has been doing the rounds online. It includes contentious passages (with the draft indicating certain parts may be removed before approval) such as:
‘A rapid phase out of unabated coal power this decade and an immediate cessation of the permitting of new unabated coal power generation, recognizing that the IPCC suggests a pathway involving a reduction of unabated coal use by 75 per cent from 2019 levels by 2030’
Terms such as ‘unabated’ are themselves very complex and could be interpreted in a variety of different ways under different regimes of international law, so the wording of this text will be closely scrutinised.
The current goal is for a text to be agreed upon by the end of the conference (on December 12th), although some commentators feel this is a little optimistic.
COP28 is a landmark event in the development of climate policy around the world, and one which raises a great number of questions for aspiring lawyers to consider.
Topics like this will therefore be immensely useful for candidates to discuss during the application cycle for legal opportunities such as training contracts, vacation schemes or pupillage (both at the application form stage and during interviews).
Consider, for example, the impact that new regulations birthed from the pressure of this historic event could have on clients of the law firm or chambers you will be applying to. If you work in a practice area such as renewable energy, will your clients be receiving tax cuts and incentives from the government to continue their work? Conversely, if you primarily advise on oil and gas deals, how will the worsening image of these industries affect your clients going forward?
Even in less obvious areas such as finance, there is an increasing tendency to ask about the ESG credentials of different organisations – for example if a large organisation is looking to purchase a new start-up (and being advised by your law firm’s M&A department), they might be interested to hear how that start-up views its climate targets in the light of COP28’s ongoing publicity.
The next week or two will be highly significant for the ongoing development of climate policy, and lawyers in practically all areas of practice should be following with keen interest.
Check out our round-up of commercial awareness questions to challenge you to take a deeper look into this topic:
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