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How to Stop Climate Change by Using the Law

How to Stop Climate Change by Using the Law

Drought-ridden land nextto a group of young activists

Left: Mike Erskine, Right: Chris Bethell

So, you are ready to do something. Climate Change, but you’re not sure where to start. Sharing an Infographic from InstagramThe impact of shopping from SheinDespite what the slacktivist critics may say, it can still have an effect. What are your options to move things to the next level of success? Do you need to be a stick figure?

The short answer is no. 

If you’re someone who prefers pen and paper, using the law is a great way to get your point across. A growing number of success stories involve the use of litigation to hold governments and businesses accountable for their climate promises. In 2021, a Shell is in court17,000 Dutch citizens brought seven organisations, including Friends of the Earth International. They successfully ruled that the company must lower its emissions.

ClientEarthAn environmental law charity that uses treaties such as the Paris AgreementClimate criminals must be brought to justice. VICE spoke to April Williamson, one their lawyers, to learn how you, a lowly person, can hack the law and fight climate change. 

VICE: What is the Paris Agreement and is it legally binding? 
April Williamson:
The Paris Agreement, a global agreement on climate change, has been signed by nearly every country in the world. All signatories have pledged to limit global warming to less than two degrees Celsius and will continue to work to limit it. below 1.5 degrees Celsius. All signatories to the Paris Agreement are bound by it. However, this does not mean that an individual or organisation can directly sue the government for failing to fulfill its obligations.

So what happens if countries don’t stick to it?
The Paris Agreement will typically be implemented at the national level by national laws. And so for example, in the UK, you have the Climate Change Act, which has legally binding targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the UK by 100% (net zero) by 2050*. People can use national laws such as this to hold the government responsible. 

Emissions-related crimes are most severe for corporations. Are they a part of the Paris Agreement
Companies are not parties to the Paris Agreement and therefore cannot be held responsible. However, the agreement has been used to inform cases against companies – for example, there was a Recent case against Shell in the NetherlandsThe courts found that the court was not adequately managing climate change risk and ordered it to cut its emissions by 45 per cent by 2030. This is a very important figure because it’s the consensus of scientists that this is what’s needed to meet the temperature targets.

Police clearing Extinction Rebellion tents in London.

London Extinction Rebellion tents cleared by police Photo by ZENO MORINO /ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

The British government could theoretically be sued for reducing taxes on domestic flights, which is directly contrary to their commitment to reduce carbon emission.
That’s quite a complicated question. You can see that such cases require a lot of factual analysis. The problem is that many national laws dictate that emissions must be reduced within a given timeframe. The government can choose how they want to achieve their emissions reduction targets and reach their ultimate goal. However, this is up to them. They can choose exactly how they plan to do that, as long as they meet those targets… Policies like reduced tax for domestic flights could mean that they’re not meeting their targets, but that would require quite a lot of analysis to be able to see whether or not there’s a strong case.

Is the UK meeting its emission targets?
We created the Climate Change Committee by passing the Climate Change Act. This committee is independent and reviews the government’s progress towards its targets. Although the government met its first two emission reduction targets over a five-year period, it is expected to miss its future targets. The government is at risk of not following UK legislation.

What happens if it doesn’t?
The government could face a judicial challenge. This is where someone, an organization, or a group could bring the government to court in an attempt to force it to fulfill its obligations. Another example is the Netherlands case, where a court brought a judicial review. Charity called Urgenda. They basically claimed that the government had not set a proper policy and was not doing enough to meet their target. The court ordered them to reduce their emissions by a specific time. We expect to see more cases like this around the world.

What’s the connection between human rights law and climate change?
You have probably seen on the news that more and more natural disasters are occurring and that extreme weather events are affecting people. So sea level rise, flooding, Wildfires, landslides; many such things could Affect people’s right for life. Some of these disasters have resulted in the deaths of people. It can also affect their health and property, if their homes or other belongings are damaged. Every government in the world is a signatory to several human rights treaties. You have the right of life and property, which could be affected by climate change. The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution last year that recognized the right to a healthy and clean environment. We expect that this will be used in various litigation cases and human rights cases related to climate change.

Extinction Rebellion protesters in London.

London Extinction Rebellion demonstrators Photo by Chris Bethell

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What other legal structures exist to protect the environment from harm?
There are many laws that can be used to protect our environment, including those that address climate change. There might be emissions limits for major infrastructure projects. This goes down to small things such as home insulation.

There are a number of laws that can be used to protect the environment at an individual level. They are not necessarily intended to do so, but they can be used. There are corporate laws where directors could be held accountable if they fail identify and manage risks properly. You could also use consumer laws to make sure that people are aware of the impacts of the products they’re using, or that they’re being advertised to accurately in “green” marketing.

If you suspect that a company is misleading people with Greenwashing – i.e., portraying themselves or their product as sustainable and climate-conscious when they are not – can you complain to the Advertising Standards Agency?
Yes. It’s easy to complain. You don’t need to hire a lawyer and you don’t need anyone to help you. It’s a very easy form. This could trigger an investigation to determine if the advertisement is misleading or should be changed. ClientEarth can also be contacted for ongoing investigations into greenwashing.

Is it worth sending an email to your MP to urge them to take climate action?
Yes, it is worth emailing your MP. An MP is there to represent their constituents and will often have an idea of what is important to residents in that constituency. You can write to your MP to explain why you believe climate change is important.

What are the most powerful tools that individuals have at their disposal for holding governments and companies accountable for climate change?
An individual can bring a legal case. But litigation is not the end all. It is also important to do things such as ActivismAdvocate for policy changes. Engage with the science to ensure that people like your MP are fully informed about the problem, understand the findings, and can escalate it to help get stronger laws and enforcement.

*UPDATE: An earlier version of this article said that the Climate Change Act had targets to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. This was true up to 2019, when the Act was amended to increase the target by 100%.


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