The climate crisis already impacts, or will inevitably impact, us all. While there are a multitude of reasons why barristers should care about it, in this article we will focus on just four.

Our clients

First, the climate crisis affects our clients. The UK’s Climate Change Risk Assessment 2022 sets out the costly effects of climate change. Property, infrastructure and lives are put at risk from flooding, coastal erosion, rising sea level, heating and increased extreme weather events. The Assessment also identifies the technological and nature-based responses needed for climate mitigation and adaptation.

Issues raised by the effects of climate change, and opportunities to respond to them, resound across all areas of legal practice. For example:

  • the fiduciary duties of directors and obligations on shareholders, in particular identifying and acting on climate risks, addressing the economic consequences of stranded assets, and reducing companies’ contributions to climate change for reputational or financial reasons;
  • obligations on the UK pensions and investment sectors when deciding where to allocate capital, and how to monitor and report on risks;
  • addressing potential shareholder claims against banks, pension funds and investment funds for failing to factor climate risk into their decision-making and to disclose climate risk to their beneficiaries;
  • regulatory obligations, including mandatory and discretionary disclosures of climate-related risks;
  • contractual obligations, including around the supply chain (the varied potential impacts are clear from the work on the Chancery Lane Project in producing template contractual climate clauses for sectors from real estate to IT to consumer protection);
  • immigration, most obviously in relation to those displaced by climate impacts;
  • tort, such as action taken based on specific losses or harms caused by climate change (eg loss of houses due to coastal erosion) or broader tort claims against fossil fuel companies;
  • consumer protection and fraud, including actions concerning greenwashing;
  • criminal law, from the potential new crime of ‘ecocide’ to the changes needed to the physical infrastructure of prisons to address climate impact;
  • planning, including the increasing emphasis on the carbon impact of development and the need for climate infrastructure; and
  • public law, including burgeoning litigation around the UK’s legal climate obligations.

In addition, the Climate Change Act 2008 (CCA 2008) imposes a set of legal obligations, including ‘Net Zero’, which have implications for many clients.

One of the core duties placed on barristers by the Code of Conduct is the obligation to provide a competent standard of work and service to each client. This requires barristers (a) to be aware of the increasingly pervasive impact of climate change; (b) to have the tools to engage with and understand the climate crisis (both the basic legal knowledge and the tools to understand the science); and (c) to understand how climate risks and opportunities are relevant to the areas of law in which they practise.

Our own climate-impacting emissions

Second, barristers should care about the climate because, as individuals, as members of chambers and as members of the Inns of Court, we have a direct role to play in mitigating our own climate-impacting emissions. This is part of our environmental, social and governance obligations. It is also a rational reaction and an achievable goal in the face of the sometimes overwhelming science in reports by the UK Climate Change Committee and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, demonstrating the ‘code red’ that we face as a result of human-induced global heating.

The Bar Council has resolved to help the Bar to achieve Net Zero by 2030 and play a wider role in addressing the climate crisis. In April this year, it established the Climate Crisis Working Group, with a mandate to advise on the practical steps necessary to ensure that barristers have the support they need to respond to the climate crisis. The Working Group has established three Action Groups, each focused on a different part of that mandate:

  • The Action Group on Practical Solutions for Chambers and Barristers is developing recommendations for self-employed barristers, chambers and the employed Bar on how to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, including drafting guidance and template strategies; creating a Certification Scheme for Net Zero by 2030; assisting with action for installing solar energy and renewable heat systems and sustainable business practices, from minimising flights to sustainable office suppliers and couriers.
  • The Action Group on the Profession is considering the implications of the climate crisis for the Rules of Conduct; working on what a climate conscious practice looks like and making recommendations on the need for, and provision of, climate-related training and professional development.
  • The Action Group on Taking Wider Action and Promoting Reform is working to respond, where relevant, to policy and legislative developments and to liaise with the international Bar, the Ministry of Justice and non-governmental organisations to share best practice and propose practical measures for the court and prison estate.

Expectations of those joining the Bar

The third reason for barristers to care about the climate? The extent to which chambers and Inns of Court are demonstrably prioritising the steps they are taking to achieve Net Zero is an increasingly important factor for those entering the profession. Young people are acutely aware of the prospect of climate breakdown and burden that places on them.

Most pressing issue of our time

Finally, for many barristers, the most compelling reason we should care about the climate crisis is that we face an ‘existential threat’, in the words of HM Treasury in its Net Zero Review: Interim Report. The interconnected climate and biodiversity crises are the most pressing issue of our time, feeding into and exacerbating other issues such as inequality, poverty and pressures on public health. Young people and children feel keenly the unfairness of delayed action. They are hyper aware of the dangers to their way of life which they will be left to face.

Barristers are uniquely placed and skilled to act, now, and to make a real difference across multiple sectors. The science shows us that it is absolutely possible – with rapid action this decade – to avoid the most dangerous climate change. This is an opportunity on which the Bar can, and must, capitalise.

Join the Bar Sustainability Network

In order to support the Bar’s transition to Net Zero, we helped to set up the Bar Sustainability Network. This offers practical guidance to chambers and barristers about climate targets and calculating their carbon footprint. It also provides guidance on policies and shares reliable information as to best practice on implementation and achievement of climate goals. All chambers are welcome to join the Network.