An environmental lawyer reflects on our place on the planet, the crucial importance of the COP26 conference, how he remains optimistic despite the challenges ahead, and what we can do individually

Our working lives as lawyers are frequently filled with urgent deadlines. We can become all-consumed with the necessary focus of a transactional settlement or a court order, or in providing responses to clients through an increasing range of forms of communication. The focus is generally on what is immediate. Add to this the fact that so much of our world can be extremely human-centred – politics, economics, law, commerce, media, family life – and the reality is that it can be very difficult to relate to what is happening to the environment.

Take a moment, if you will, to reflect on the fact that the Earth is approximately 4 billion years old. To give some context to our place in this timeline, the late environmentalist, David Brower, came up with the idea of placing the history of the Earth into the equivalent space of a calendar year. The result was if 1 January marked the origin of the planet, then spring and summer would be filled with simple plants enriching the atmosphere with oxygen, with coral appearing in early August. Multicellular life forms would have filled the oceans in around mid-November, freshwater fish and vascular plants would have arrived in late November, with dinosaurs evolving on 13 December and modern mammals emerging on 27 December. At 10 minutes to midnight on Hogmanay, Neanderthals would have moved throughout Europe, with agriculture being invented only one minute before midnight. The modern industrialised era would only have begun an equivalent of two seconds before midnight on 31 December.

The main three lessons I take away from this timeline are that: first, the wonders of human creation are actually only very recent; secondly, the environmental problems we are facing and damage caused to the planet are also only relatively very recent; and thirdly, that life on Earth is made habitable by virtue of so many complex, intricate, longstanding environmental systems and services which have evolved over these 4 billion years. These environmental services include the provision of our food, water, energy, building products (wood, sand, stone etc) and many pharmaceutical products; regulating roles such as crop pollination, waste decomposition, water purification and of course carbon sequestration; and then cultural services – the landscapes that provide outdoor recreation, artistic/intellectual inspiration, and which make Scotland one of the world’s most attractive tourist destinations.

COP26 focus

The importance of the forthcoming United Nations Conference of the Parties – COP26 – being held in Glasgow this November cannot be overestimated. It is quite simply crucial that countries commit meaningfully to their next targets for the carbon emission reductions, and stimulate innovative ways of living and operating that are sustainable. It has taken 42 years of climate negotiations since the First World Climate Conference held in Geneva in February 1979 to arrive at the current agenda for COP26. It has been an exceedingly difficult road for countries at different stages of their economic development and different interests to reach consensus. But we now have an urgent deadline like no other, and it is clearly focusing attention.

I’ve tended to find that it helps as an environmental lawyer to be an optimist, despite what has often felt like an uphill battle. I’m certainly very encouraged by the focus being given to COP26 by the UK Government, and even more so by the indicative Nationally Determined Contribution to 2030 on carbon emission reductions by the Scottish Government (despite it not being a party to the Paris Agreement on climate change), and its efforts to engage communities in the drive towards becoming “net zero”. It feels to me as if there has been a significant sea change politically towards environmental governance, and that governance helps immeasurably in allowing environmental law to be implemented effectively.

Scotland's advantage

Thanks to a large degree to our years of being part of the European Union, we have an extensive body of environmental law in Scotland. Added to that European influence, Scotland has in place some of the most progressive environmental law and policy in the world from its own initiative – for example the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 with its focus on the protection of biological diversity, the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 with its very ambitious carbon emission reduction targets, and the Wild Land Areas policy which seeks to safeguard the wildest areas of Scotland from development.

Add to this governance direction and environmental law a culture in Scotland that seems increasingly receptive to the importance of protecting the environment, and we have three key ingredients able to work together in innovative ways. Scotland is blessed with world-quality landscapes, wildlife, water (just consider the whisky industry, with water quality being of paramount importance), and air. But there is just so much more that can be done to improve these qualities by extending and restoring the likes of forest cover, coral reefs, wetlands and peatlands. Boosting the natural capital of the country by way of habitat restoration not only creates a stronger economic platform, but provides a greater array of ecological services required to mitigate the impacts of climate change, including flood alleviation.

Think long-term

The concept of “rewilding” has caught significant attention in the past few years, and increasingly so as landowners, communities, charities and businesses are seeing the possibilities that can be created by allowing land to be restored and for the wildlife to return. In doing so, we are seeing ancient ecological systems return and begin to function once again. Similarly we are witnessing significant progression in the ways in which farming, transport, manufacturing, energy production, fisheries and forestry are developing more sustainable and creative ways of operating. The more that we commit to this change, the more closely our culture connects with the land and the sea.

In Gaelic culture (and indeed throughout many indigenous cultures around the world) there is the principle of thinking seven generations ahead before something significant is done. The process in and around COP26 forms a key opportunity to think long-term, backed up by short-term, measurable action. Yes, the predicament is very challenging indeed and the commitments required to facilitate new ways of living are significant. But the task ahead is not impossible.

Our personal contribution

So what can we as lawyers do as part of this trajectory? Well, already as a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, so many of us will have reduced our carbon footprint from travelling less as flexible working and meetings via video call have become the norm. We can support the many commercial and community initiatives being created as a reaction to the climate crisis and help make them a reality. We can also be a watchdog, support and sounding board for governance and in the creation of new laws and policies.

But on a personal level, amidst the urgent office deadlines, it is also so important to try to connect regularly with the natural world – or Friluftsliv as they call it in Norway – through being outside in our parks, gardens, forests, coasts and mountains. Not only is that the best way of understanding why the planet is so precious, but it can also provide an invaluable counterbalance to our busy lives.

The Author

Jamie Whittle is a partner in R & R Urquhart LLP and a member of the Law Society of Scotland's Environmental Law and Rural Affairs Committees

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