COP27: what were the key legal outcomes and successes?

World leaders and delegates came together at COP27 to coordinate their fights to end the climate crisis. But what do their decisions mean for the legal profession? Alasdair Cameron, policy adviser and COP attendee, discusses the key results.
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This year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP27 took place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt from 6 until 18 November. Egypt positioned itself as the gateway to climate action for Africa.

COP27 followed on the heels of last year’s conference in Glasgow, which attracted worldwide attention and was hailed as one of the most important COPs so far.

The theme of this year’s COP was implementation.

There is growing recognition that implementation will be impossible without partnership between the public and private sector to implement the UN’s framework for climate action.

Here, the role of legal services is critical to create the glide rails for the just transition.

1. International network of bars on climate and events

We formed an international network with the International Bar Association (IBA), American Bar Association and Brazilian Bar Association to share knowledge and discuss best practice.

This will enable us to advise members to implement climate-positive measures in their work.

This was the first time that legal associations came together in this way at COP, marking a shift to a more pragmatic focus on how to tackle the climate crisis from a legal perspective.

Together, we ran a half-day event on 10 November, on the role of lawyers, bars and law societies in the climate crisis.

The event coordinated conversations, assembled best practice examples and discussed the issues for solicitors on how to advise clients on climate-related legal risks.

It also addressed:

  • the key national and international challenges facing the legal profession
  • what action individual bars and law societies are taking to defend the rule of law as a vital means for climate justice

Justice Luis Barroso of the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil gave the keynote address and Vesselina Haralampieva, senior counsel at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, represented the Law Society’s climate change working group in the discussion.

We also co-hosted an official side event at the UNFCCC with the American Bar Association, Brazilian Bar Association and IBA.

Discussions have established that there is a need for lawyers’ continued presence at future COPs. Whether it be commercial or government lawyers supporting negotiations over the line or problem solving on key commercial agreements that require legal expertise to facilitate the just transition in the current commercial legal framework.

For example, in the official programme this year, there was lack of focus on the law and lawyers compared to other professional advisory areas (such as finance).

The Law Society, together with other international bars, will continue to advocate for the role of lawyers as an opportunity for our members.

In addition to events hosted by bars and law societies, events were held for lawyers on restructuring the law for a net-zero future and Climate Law and Governance Day.

2. Upskilling the profession to advise on climate legal risks

Lawyers need to be aware not only of the race to zero, but of the race to regulation to support this transition to uphold the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C.

Consistency across data and disclosures will exist both for the benefit of firms and their clients.

There is a growing taxonomy of both national and international disclosure and reporting standards that solicitors should increasingly be aware of as they come into play or expand their scope:

Generally, lawyers who practice in the realm of environmental, social and governance (ESG) or climate risk will need to continue to stay on top of the developments at the national, international and COP level as these will continue to impact the regulatory landscape.

ESG and climate risk sit on top of lawyers existing areas of expertise and they will continually need to look at the matters that they advise on through the ESG and climate legal risk lens.

This means understanding your client’s business from a climate change risk and opportunity perspective and considering whether you are equipped with the skills to advise in such a way.

In addition to action taken by bars and law societies, the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Climate Engagement published a Climate Law Atlas during COP27. The atlas provides an overview of how climate change is shaping different areas of law.

The Legal Sustainability Alliance also launched a free resource to understand key terminology for lawyers emerging in the climate change regulatory landscape.

3. The 1.5°C commitment

At COP26, it was affirmed that nations would continue pursue a limit of a global temperature rise of 1.5°C outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

To achieve this, firms along with all business will need to continue to pursue their own net-zero targets, so this global goal can be attained.

However, there were concerns at the end of COP26 that this was not achievable, and there seemed to be little clarification or strengthening on measures to achieve this at COP27.

Goals to phase out fossil fuel energy use were somewhat qualified in this year’s implementation plan.

The plan signified a movement to reducing usage of fossil fuels, rather than eliminating them completely.

With this, Alok Sharma, president of COP26 said that the 1.5°C commitment “remained on life support” following COP27.

The Net Zero Lawyers Alliance commits to support the goal of net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 or sooner, in line with global efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C (net zero).

To see how nations are on track to meet 1.5°C, Net Zero Tracker provided an update during COP27:

4. Reparative measures

One of the other major talking points was “loss and damage”.

Delegates spoke on the importance of delivering climate justice to poorer, developing countries who have disproportionately bore the brunt of the effects of climate change.

Nations discussed how to split the bill for damages incurred because of rising temperatures.

This received support from delegates including the US, who now support financial measures following the agreed removal of legal liability.

A formal funding structure will be put in place by COP28, although it is currently unclear the mechanisms behind it and whether the money will get where it needs to go.

5. Other key highlights

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