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As our world is nearing the end of the Covid-19 Pandemic, it is a pertinent time to reflect on the experience of the past two years. As well as the terrible death toll of the pandemic itself, we observed social and economic mayhem. But it is a salutary point to note that for someone born in the year 2000 this was the second major systemic failure that has affected global society. When our millennial was seven or eight years of age, the global financial crisis of 2007/8 hit, and once again the result was social and economic mayhem. This is hardly what could be called a good start to the 21st century.

Having said that, those two global events, terrible as they were and are, have the potential over the long term to pale into insignificance next to the climate crisis that is gripping our planet. If global warming is not checked at the very least, the death toll may be unthinkable. Right now, it is more than problematic for us to have to focus so intently on putting out a fire in the yard of our house down in the valley, because it may cause us to forget that we are living in the shadow of a volcano that has just started to erupt.

Since the early 1990s there has been a growing call in the international world of business for environmentally sustainable practices to replace the old way of doing things. The problem is that while Net Zero may be an active aim and ambition, it involves reversing 250 years of established ways of working.

The legal community is in the process of learning as well as taking action, and in-house lawyers are on the front lines of bringing about a transition within companies. One of the most visible manifestations of this is Lawyers for Net Zero. This non-profit group of in-house counsel, legal professionals and entrepreneurs are united by their desire to protect the precious resources of our natural environment. The movement’s inspiration was the recognition of a massive opportunity for in-house lawyers to be critical in supporting organisations to deliver real change. They want climate aware counsel to help organisations avoid greenwashing and achieve legitimate Net Zero.

Led by Executive Director Adam Woodhall, with support from numerous volunteers, the movement is complementary to other legal sector initiatives that include the Legal Sustainability Alliance, the ESELA network, ClientEarth, the Chancery Lane Project and the Net Zero Lawyers Alliance.

Societal trust in institutions and big business has never been lower, and if there is one thing on which most people around the world are agreed where the Covid-19 pandemic is concerned, it is that we have been presented with a unique and entirely unexpected opportunity that could never have come about by any other means to ‘build back better’. It is, therefore, a golden opportunity after more than 30 years of trying to change the way our world does business.

The questions are many and daunting. How do you embed authenticity in corporate culture? One thing that needs to happen, and in-house lawyers may have a decisive influence here, is the determination of what, precisely, we are aiming for in the somewhat generalized drive toward ‘Net Zero.’ Is Net Zero even enough, or is regenerative climate action and the repayment of carbon debt the real aim? It may be the case that certain businesses should be looking at a two-stage approach, with Net Zero being the immediate ambition and ‘Net Zero plus’ the aim for the future.

The obstacles are huge but the wind is blowing favorably. The political climate is ripe for real change at this time, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Brexit, Trump, and the many other less obvious but equally significant societal and political upheavals of recent times. In-house general counsel are, in effect, the first mates onboard ships navigating a storm not just of climate change, but also of deep-seated systemic issues surrounding the functioning and questioning of corporate behaviour, and the behaviour of our governments. Because of their position within the chain of command, in-house general counsel are not the captains of these corporate vessels, but as the law always tends to be the lightning rod for volatility in politics, policy and regulatory issues around climate change, they are uniquely well-placed to influence policy.

So, if there are massive opportunities but massive challenges as well, how do we begin to tackle some of those challenges? The first, and often the greatest, is for in-house lawyers to recognize that this is not someone else’s responsibility. Every individual can make a difference, be it ever so humble in some cases, and the current generation of counsel are not the warm-up acts for the big stars who will turn up later. Later is too late. The responsibility is yours, it is now, and if you need more encouragement then consider that you are personally responsible for saving the world. Hyperbolic as that may sound, it is, in fact, the truth.

How do you make a difference? In many cases there is no actual need for the lawyer to be genuinely single-handed doing this. Even in businesses where the legal team is only one person, that person will still be part of a larger team and the first steps are to get other members of the team, whatever their function, thinking the right way. Start small, but start strategic. Create an effective ‘can do’ culture around sustainability on a small scale and it will soon begin to spread out through an organisation. Consider not printing unnecessarily; consider electronic signing of documents rather than requiring ink on paper; devise supplier questionnaires and contract clauses with real legal weight, and be prepared to hold feet to the flames on these matters; talk to people regular and often about how this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and get them excited about being the generation that made the difference: all of these are things of which even small businesses can make a success.

Lawyers need to be ahead of this game. They need to be politically aware and start scanning the horizon rather than just the stretch of road right in front of them. There is a political movement gathering pace, and it is one of which you want to be a part. In truth, you might question the greater dangers of standing apart from it. Parliamentary committees are already asking probing and quite harsh questions of businesses about this issue. Expect that to be just the beginning, and start seeing your role as making your business fit for the future. This will be true of your customers as well as politicians. The public is more than aware of the need for ethical, renewable, carbon-neutral business practices. We are already seeing huge shifts in the habits of consumers in favor of ethical businesses, so again, consider the dangers inherent in not being a part of this movement.

There are few easy wins in this. We are in a transition phase, and whilst we know a lot more about where we are and where we need to be than we did a decade ago, we still have a lot of uncharted waters through which to sail our corporate craft.

Here at ELE Global, we have joined over 1600 companies who are committing to Net- Zero by 2030, the campaign run by the B Corp Climate Collective. This campaign is one of the most accelerated climate action efforts by a large constituency of businesses from around the world. The participating companies hope to lower their greenhouse gas emissions to reach a 1.5 degree trajectory, thus leading to Net-Zero by the year 2030, which is 20 years ahead of the targets set in the Paris Agreement. We are so proud to join this effort that will harness the power of business to help solve the climate crisis.

Achieving Net-Zero will be the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, but it also gives the best opportunity for creativity and innovation. We know the goals, and it is great to have excitement surrounding the initiative, but what we really need now is momentum. Lawyers can be enablers of an organisation’s vision and goals, there is training, information, support and guidance out there and easily accessible, and you are hearing the call to action throughout the world at a uniquely favourable time. We will never have this opportunity again, so if you don’t want to be the ones who let humanity down, then right now start believing that you are the ones who can save it.