Climate Change: A Growing Election and Legal Battleground

Climate change is gearing up to become a key election – and legal – battleground. 

‘Just Stop Sunak’ screamed Tuesday’s Daily Mirror in response to the government’s confirmation on Monday that it would grant more than 100 new North Sea oil and gas drilling licences, while The Sun led with the launch of its ‘Give Us A Brake’ campaign, urging politicians to “protect hard-up motorists from expensive net zero policies”. The Times, meanwhile, reported that the government will ask the heads of major UK energy companies to reconsider their investment strategies following Rishi Sunak’s call to “max out the opportunities” in the North Sea.

Emboldened by the Conservatives’ recent Uxbridge by-election victory, in which opposition to the expansion of London’s ultra-low emission zone played no small part, the Prime Minister insisted that plans to expand North Sea drilling, said to be essential for the UK’s energy security, were “entirely consistent with our plan to get to net zero”.

The new North Sea licensing round – which will be accompanied by two more carbon capture and storage projects – drew condemnation from environmental groups, opposition figures, the renewable energy industry, investors and some former Tory ministers.

Lambasting the plan as “the wrong decision at precisely the wrong time, when the rest of the world is experiencing record heatwaves”, Chris Skidmore, the former science minister who led a review into net zero, said it was “on the wrong side of modern voters who will vote with their feet at the next general election for parties that protect, and not threaten, our environment.”

The North Sea plan follows the government’s approval in December of the UK’s first new deep coal mine in thirty years, recent changes to the UK’s carbon trading scheme that cut incentives for industry to reduce emissions, a planned national review of low-traffic neighbourhoods, not to mention a damning progress report from the Climate Change Committee in June, which claimed that the UK has lost its global leadership position on climate change and risks failing to meet legally binding emissions targets made at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Meanwhile, a coalition of nature groups, including the National Trust, RSPB and RSPCA, have threatened to mobilise their 20 million or so members, should the government “use the environment as a political football” by watering down its climate commitments. 

The net zero fallout comes amid a continuing rise in climate litigation. According to research published last week by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University and the UN Environment Programme, the number of climate-related lawsuits has more than doubled in the past five years to 2,180 court cases globally.

And a report by the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, published in June, found a significant increase in legal challenges to the climate policy response of governments and companies, particularly outside the US. It also reported a surge in greenwashing cases relating to climate mis- and disinformation, and an increase in litigation concerning investment decisions – a fact of which the energy companies summoned to Number 10 will be only too aware. 

While both reports highlight a growing ESG backlash with a rise in lawsuits that seek to delay climate action or obtain compensation for government climate policies, in the overwhelming majority of cases, “People are … turning to courts to combat the climate crisis, holding governments and the private sector accountable and making litigation a key mechanism for securing climate action and promoting climate justice,” according to Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. 

Indeed, Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth and Good Law Project are taking the UK government to court for the second time in under two years over its plans for tackling climate change. They claim that the government’s revised net zero strategy – the Carbon Budget Delivery Plan – is unlawful and are seeking a judicial review. It follows the organisations’ landmark legal victory last year, with the High Court ruling that the government’s net zero strategy breached the Climate Change Act and required revision to show how key emissions reduction targets would be met.

Greenpeace, meanwhile, was in court last week to challenge the government’s “reckless decision to greenlight a new oil and gas licensing round, without properly checking the damage it will do to the climate”.

The UK government’s climate climbdown and vocal support for motorists, while clearly a calculated risk, is a polarising issue, pitting as it does short-term energy security against long-term green investment, economic self-interest against the ‘greater good’, and – as the Financial Times suggested yesterday – individual freedoms against statutory diktat. 

But whatever the ultimate impact on UK voting intentions of the net zero pushback, especially in light of the prolonged cost of living crisis, the increasing appetite for challenging governmental and corporate climate policy response in the courts as we enter the “era of global boiling” means that these latest lawsuits are unlikely to be the last. 

With more than half of climate litigation cases having direct judicial outcomes favourable to climate action, including prompting policy changes, according to the LSE report, Rishi Sunak – and the energy companies – better take note.  

By Sarah Peters


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Shein Doesn’t Shine Anymore

Channel 4’s recent documentary into the working practices of garment workers for ultra-fast fashion firm Shein was shocking, but hardly surprising.

The company, privately owned by Chinese marketing guru Chris Xu and loved by millions of millennials and Gen Z shoppers in the UK, said in response that it was extremely concerned by the allegations which “would violate its Code of Conduct agreed to by every Shein supplier” and promised to investigate the claims. However, it has said the same when faced with similar allegations in 2021.

Shein seems to attract regular bouts of negative publicity. It is regularly in hot water with high-end brands accusing it of copyright infringement and copycat designs – complaints from Zara and the owners of Doc Martens being examples. Only recently, its parent company agreed to pay US$1.9m to New York authorities for failure to notify all customers of the extent of a hacking and data breach incident.

Who will investigate Shein over the latest furore?  The company ships clothes to 150 countries. In the UK will we see them being investigated for breach of the Modern Slavery Act (MSA) 2015?

This law requires companies to prepare and make publicly available details of the steps taken to ensure slavery and human trafficking are not part of supply chains and the result of due diligence undertaken into business operations and suppliers. However the trouble with the MSA is the lack of teeth in the face of any contravention. Critics lament that it seems to be expected that reputational or commercial pressures suffice in doing the job of holding perpetrators to account in the absence of proper sanctions.

When he was Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab talked about the UK government’s intention to introduce fines for businesses that do not comply with their MSA transparency obligations. However precise details of whether this is in the latest Modern Slavery Bill are still awaited.

Meantime the meteoric rise and popularity of Shein amongst Gen Z shoppers suggests a passion for cheap fashion is more important to them in financially constrained times, than concerns about Shein’s link to questionable human rights and unethical working practices.

Nonetheless, potential investors in Shein’s proposed IPO will surely demand it does a better job of upholding its ESG responsibilities. There has been talk that the company intends to list in the US in 2024 and of an eye-popping $100bn valuation.

If Shein does have ambitions to become a global public company and wants long-term success, it would do well to learn a few basic lessons, namely:

  • ESG principles can’t be dismissed as a mere tick box exercise.
  • There is no point in having a self-designed Code of Conduct if it isn’t followed or policed. 
  • Communication with investors and regulators is a totally different kettle of fish to communication with consumers on Tiktok.

Regulators and law makers may not be quite there yet on scrutinising companies over their environmental credentials and ethical practices, but this is undoubtedly an area of rapid development. If Shein doesn’t walk the talk or communicate authentically, it could soon lose its sheen and swiftly find itself no longer in fashion.

November 1st 2022

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