COP21 for Lawyers, Environmental or Not

Given recent world events and the very significant attention on France right about now, it will be difficult for a lawyer or anyone to ignore the United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place beginning Nov. 30, 2015. The media’s attention has already been focused on it; the influx of participants, both for formal talks and informal networking, should be a welcome boost for the city of Paris following the Friday the 13th terrorist attack, and the resulting attention on climate change and the pressing need to decrease carbon emissions make this a subject likely to be on the minds of clients of environmental attorneys and even of more mainstream practitioners.

The summit in Paris is an annual meeting of nations called, more formally, the Conference of Parties, or COP. The 21st get-together (hence, COP21) has its origins in the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 and the formation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was opened for signature at that long-ago meeting in Brazil. The framework convention, which had as its goal an effort to limit greenhouse gas emissions, went into effect in 1994.

The tension has long been, of course, that industrialized nations typically have been emitting greenhouse gases for a long time so to keep their economies chugging along while poorer nations often experience the negative impacts of climate change (in the form of rising seas, depleted oceans, drought, etc.) without having done a whole lot to contribute to it. The challenge, then, is how to apportion responsibility for combating climate woes and to get nations to agree to be bound by a meaningful commitment to take steps to solve the problem. The hope is that a binding agreement on climate change will be the outcome of COP21.

Representatives of countries are not the only ones interested in climate change who will be descending upon Paris at the time of the COP21 meeting. Business and nonprofit groups will also be getting together to address climate change, sustainability, and the green economy.

What this means for lawyers back in the United States is that industries, the consultants that work for them, suppliers, and so on will be contemplating more sustainable ways to do business in the future. Doing business so that the environment is not as negatively impacted, so that resources are used more efficiently, and so that, ultimately, carbon emissions are reduced makes a lot of economic sense. Of course, the law has not necessarily evolved at the same pace that the sustainability movement has.

Lawyers may want to choose this moment to message their clients about COP21 and about how lawyers can help them — with compliance, with partners and contracts, with building and zoning codes — as these clients take more and greater efforts to be sustainable and environmentally friendly. Any number of industries are looking to green their supply chains, their manufacturing processes, the products they produce, and the ways in which they transport and market their goods. Sustainability is being addressed in higher education, in primary and secondary schools, at sporting events, in the restaurant industry, in cities, by insurers, by builders, by the federal government and by state governments. Many individuals are also introducing more sustainable practices into their personal lives by buying more locally grown foods, by composting food waste, by selecting more environmentally friendly forms of transportation, by decreasing their reliance on fossil fuels, by repurposing and recycling more rather than tossing unused products as waste. Lawyers who ignore a keen global interest in climate change and ways to limit its occurrence and to adapt to its realities are restraining their practices unnecessarily. In some ways, every lawyer is an environmental lawyer now, or should be.

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