The Law, Sustainability and Technology: Welcoming COP to Scotland session at the Society's Law and Technology Conference was led by Aberdeen University's Professor Abbe Brown, a non-practising solicitor and a member of the Society’s Technology Law and Practice Committee and the COP26 and Climate Change Working Group, and Professor Tahseen Jafry of Glasgow Caledonian University.

Abbe examines the interface between intellectual property and laws relating to technology, such as privacy, and their intersection (or lack of it) with the addressing of other laws relating to key societal challenges, such as climate change, and has recently published a new book Intellectual Property, Climate Change and TechnologyTahseen explores climate justice from a social science and engineering perspective and has previously shared her thoughts on climate change and energy transition with the profession .

In her blog, Abbe has provided an overview on the themes and outcomes from the conference session. The working group is also running a survey until 13 November for members to tell us what impact COP26 will have on them and their clients, and their views on the key issues for climate change and the legal profession.

Welcoming COP26 to Scotland

The Conference of the Parties (COP) 26 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will now take place in Glasgow in November 2021. The Society’s annual Law and Technology conference, running of course online this year, on 21 September provided a valuable opportunity to begin exploring the opportunities and questions this may raise for the profession.

Our session, Law, Sustainability and Technology: Welcoming COP to Scotland, chaired by Emma Dixon, Senior Legal Adviser at the Oil and Gas Authority and the interim chair of the Society’s COP26 Working Group, explored three themes: “Making our practices more environmentally sustainable, standards and metrics”; “Advising clients on environmental sustainability and climate justice– challenges and opportunities” and “Clashes with other values and laws”.

Reflecting the technology focus, discussion focused in particular on intellectual property rights (should patents prevent wide use of ground-breaking wind technology?), privacy (are smart meters wholly positive?), delivering climate justice in the broadest sense (including in the context of the Just Transition Commission, inequality and Black Lives Matter), and on metrics and standards (how can one assess how clients and firms are being as sustainable as possible – is the ISO  only a starting point?).

For all involved, this was a new opportunity to explore these thoughts and the session raised important questions for all of the profession: to what extent should solicitors encourage clients to explore sustainability in new ways and indeed what business opportunities may arise from this, in the context of the existing legal frameworks and policy decisions being made by firms, for example regarding corporate social responsibility? Complementing this, is and should climate change be part of the day job of all in the profession or should it be seen as limited to those working in say environmental and planning law, judicial review and litigation involving activists?

Discussion and next steps

There was some active in person discussion between the speakers and participants in the session as well as participation in the online chat. We used the technology to have four pools, the results of which are summarised below:

1 Could your practice do more to be environmentally sustainable?
Yes 54.45%, No 0, Don’t know 45.45%

2 Does climate justice seem to be important to your clients?   
Yes 25%, No 37.5%, Don’t know 37.5%

3 Are other laws practically more important that climate change and sustainability?
Yes 83.33%, No 0, Don’t know 16.67%

4:Should sustainability be more of a professional priority?
Yes 87.5%, No 0, Don’t know 12.%

The strong takeaway was that there is great scope for further discussion on these and other points and regarding the opportunities for leadership by the Society. There was also discussion, building on some arguments by activists in England, about the extent to which solicitors could refuse to act for high emitters - it was noted that this seemed inconsistent with professional obligations.

A toolkit was suggested for the profession, with one possible item being new “boilerplate” clauses which encourage a low carbon and sustainable approach in various situations, to make this path more visible (perhaps more mainstream) if clients wished to consider this. The toolkit could also include a mapping of the scope for climate change and sustainability points to arise in different practice areas and some guidance as to what initial steps could be.

The session makes very timely the survey to the profession by the Society’s COP26 and Climate Change Working group and all are encouraged to take part. The Working Group will be active in the coming months across the wide spread of issues which can arise from COP26.

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COP26 and climate change survey

Inspired by the COP26 and climate change conference we've set up a working group with representatives from a number of existing committees who want to hear your views. Please complete our short survey.