Analysing the climate emergency declaration

As advisories, in-house counsel can assist organisations in making eco-friendly decisions

Analysing the climate emergency declaration

In a 2019 study entitled World scientists’ warning of a climate emergency, over 11,000 international scientists found that the planet was “clearly and unequivocally” facing a climate emergency. Many countries, including the UK, Canada and France, have declared a climate emergency.

On 2 December 2020, New Zealand joined the list. Although the country contributes to only 0.17% of global emissions, the NZ Herald has described this as “embarrassingly out-sized,” and the country’s emissions have increased nearly 60% over the past 20 years.

What does declaring a climate emergency mean?

Jamie Morton, a science reporter for the NZ Herald, explained that a climate emergency declaration is a “symbolic acknowledgement at the highest levels that we’re facing a climate change crisis – and a commitment to meet the challenge.”

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that to avoid a disastrous 1.5°C increase in global temperatures, global emissions must fall to net-zero by 2050. “This is a declaration based on science,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in the government’s climate emergency declaration.

This declaration is not the first action New Zealand has taken to reduce its carbon footprint. In addition to signing the Paris Agreement in 2016, in 2019, the Ardern administration passed the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019, allowing companies to implement climate change policies that contribute to worldwide efforts.

The Carbon Neutral Government Programme

The climate emergency declaration included a promise for the New Zealand Parliament to reduce its carbon emissions and to become a carbon-neutral government by 2025. The “Carbon Neutral Government Programme” announced during the declaration sets out three elements to help achieve a carbon-neutral public service. These elements include phasing out coal boilers, purchasing only electric and hybrid vehicles and imposing an energy efficiency building standard on all mandated agencies with office spaces covering over 2,000 square metres.

Ardern explained in the government’s declaration that the motion would “require government agencies to measure and reduce their emissions” and offset them if the agencies cannot achieve carbon neutrality by 2025.

She added that this declaration would “need to be supported by ongoing, continual activity,” explaining that the public sector “will be an exemplar that sets the standard we all need to achieve by 2050.”

How will the declaration affect the private sector?

Ardern also called on the private sector to do its part. “It serves as the clearest of signals to the private sector…Globally, we have entered an age of action, and that includes the private sector as well,” she said.

In their publication Climate Conscious Law Firms, Lawyers for Climate Action NZ Inc. (LCANZ) outlined steps for law firms to reduce their carbon footprint. As well as demonstrating good corporate citizenship, LCANZ said that cutting carbon contributes to a firm’s operational efficiency, which can result in financial savings.

LCANZ outlined several steps firms can take today to reduce their carbon footprint, namely:

  • Cutting travel to the essentials – making the virtual meetings held during lockdown the “new normal”
  • Energy-saving at the office – changing bulbs to LED and switching off devices, screens and TVs
  • Reducing waste and making it easy to recycle – putting the proper bins in place and investigating compost options
  • Buying better – considering the carbon cost of heavy-volume printing
  • In the longer term, consulting with organisations such as Ekos and Toitu Envirocare to help formulate and implement a plan for reducing firm emissions

Expected legal challenges

Although the climate emergency declaration has highlighted the issue, it does not provide the New Zealand government with any more lawmaking power or an obligation to act.

“If the emergency declaration remains a symbolic gesture, as we have seen elsewhere in the world, then I think it will be important that our communities continue to hold the government to account for their pledge to take real action on the climate crisis,” Dr. Raven Cretney, a Waikato University researcher, told the NZ Herald.

In its publication Managing climate risk in New Zealand in 2020: A tool kit for directors, Chapman Tripp explained the importance of factoring climate change into organisational risk management strategies. “Climate change impacts are already locked in, with quickly increasing public awareness of likely future damage. The pace at which boards will need to confront this challenge is ramping up,” the firm wrote. As advisories, in-house counsel can assist organisations in making eco-friendly decisions.

A study by US research and advisory firm Gartner Inc. explained the need for in-house counsel to shift the focus of their services. “GCs often default to focusing primarily on the strict legal aspects of the guidance they provide, failing to meaningfully incorporate extra-legal business considerations such as the impact of the law on strategic initiatives or the bottom line,” Gartner said. In-house counsel should provide guidance on current legal issues and government policies surrounding climate change and help integrate this into the business’s strategic planning.

The long-term effects of the New Zealand government’s declaration are not yet known. As Ardern explained in the government’s declaration, “it is up to us to make sure that we demonstrate there is a pathway, a plan for action, and there is a reason for hope.”

“This declaration is an acknowledgement for the next generation: an acknowledgement of the burden that they will carry if we do not get this right and if we do not take action now,” she said.

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