Tag Archives: climate change

The Big Smoke: ClientEarth v Defra in context

Efforts to combat air pollution in London have been around since the Middle Ages. In 1307, King Edward II declared that “whoever shall be found guilty of burning coal [in the City] shall suffer the loss of his head.” Three hundred years later, English author John Evelyn published one of the earliest known publications on air pollution, entitled “Fumifugium: or, the Inconveniencie of Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated.”

John_Evelyn's_Fumifugium,_Title_Page

Evelyn wrote in his diaries that in London, “the ascent of the smoke was so filled with the [sooty] steam of the coal, that hardly could one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles, exceedingly obstructed the breast so as one could scarcely breathe.”

In the 19th century, Parliament took some measures to investigate nuisances arising from smoke pollution. However, as smoke was essential to England’s rapidly-growing industrial economy, and because the physicians were still unable to prove that air pollution was linked to health problems, there was little political will or social pressure to justify tough action.

This remained the status quo until the 1950s, when in December 1952, London experienced the Great Smog. A combination of cold winter weather, heavy fog, and chimney smoke from households burning coal led to the worst air pollution event in British history. Up to 12,000 people are believed to have died as a result, with a further 100,000 being taken seriously ill. In response, scientific research into the environmental increased, awareness grew of the relationship between air quality and health, and of course, more substantial government regulations were introduced.

Nevertheless, air pollution is still estimated to have an effect equivalent to 29,000 deaths each year and is expected to reduce life expectancy of everyone in the UK by 6 months on average, at a cost of around £16 billion per year (UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs).

Smog over the Thames - a sight familiar to Londoners, myself included!

Smog over the Thames – a sight familiar to Londoners

Earlier this year, activist environmental lawyers at ClientEarth took the UK Government to court over its failure to meet air quality standards established by European Union law. The Air Quality Directive sets legally binding limits for major air pollutants that impact public health, including Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) which is produced by road traffic and other fossil fuel combustion processes.

Scientists at King’s College London have said that many roads in central London have the highest concentrations of NO2 in the world due to the large number of diesel vehicles and narrow streets with tall buildings.

The current plans from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) would see the UK achieve compliance for NOlimits by 2030 – which is 20 years after the original EU legal deadline of January 2010.

The Mayor of London published a report by King’s College London in July 2015 with the world’s first estimates for the number of deaths attributable to long-term exposure to NO. They estimated 9,400 deaths from fine particles and NO in London in 2010, making air pollution worse than smoking for the first time.

Lord Carnwath reasoned that there was no doubt in the seriousness of the breach, or the responsibility of the UK Supreme Court to secure compliance. He concluded that the Government needs to take immediate action, and ordered that new plans must be delivered to the European Commission by 31 December 2015.

Activists gather outside the UK Supreme Court for the Final Hearing of ClientEarth v Defra

Alan Andrews is the Partner at ClientEarth who has been leading this legal battle since 2011. Following the decision he said, “obviously we set EU law precedent, and we hope that’s going to allow citizens to go before national courts and uphold their right to breathe clean air, but also to enforce other environmental laws.”

Read the full judgement of R (on the application of ClientEarth) (Appellant) v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Respondent) here.

COP21

COP21 (Paris 2015): a Legally Binding Treaty?

International climate change negotiations began in 1976, but the Rio talks in 1992 — the Earth Summit — established the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change‎. 

Current agreements focus on the actions of advanced economies, but not on developing countries – some of which have now become major emitters of greenhouse gases. As such, during the 2011 Climate Change Conference held in Durban, South Africa, it was agreed that a “treaty or agreed outcome with legal force” should be reached amongst 196 signatories (195 countries + the European Union).

The upcoming 21st Session of the Convention – known as COP21 or Paris 2015 – will be held from November 30th to December 11th 2015. The goal is to establish, for the first time, a universal agreement to combat anthropogenic climate change.

If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, we will pass the threshold beyond which global warming becomes catastrophic and irreversible. That threshold is estimated as a temperature rise of 2ºC (3.6ºF) above pre-industrial levels, and on current trajectories we are heading for a rise of about 5C. That may not sound like much, but the temperature difference between today’s world and the last ice age was about 5ºC, so seemingly small changes in temperature can mean big differences for the Earth. – Fiona Harvey, Environmental Journalist writing for the Guardian

UNFCCC Bonn

A working group of the UN Climate Change Conference held in Bonn, Germany earlier this summer to prepare for COP21

In the lead up to the Summit, governments around the world will submit their mitigation goals (emissions reduction) and climate change adaptation goals. Known as “intended nationally determined contributions” or INDCs, these goals are drafted at national level. For example, the United States is aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26–28% below 2005 levels by 2025. By contrast, the European Union hopes to reach a target of 40% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions when compared to 1990.

As delegations gear up to attend Paris 2015, it is important to remember that Durban set out no concrete specifics as to the legal form or enforceability of such an agreement. The European Union (amongst others) insists that the outcome of Paris 2015 is a set of legally binding targets, whereby countries will be held legally accountable to their INDCs. On the other hand, the US special envoy on climate change, Todd Stern, insists that a ‘hybrid approach’ to legal enforcement offers the best chance of striking a deal agreeable to all.

Non-profit organisations such as Green Alliance, Greenpeace, the RSPB, and the WWF have also weighed in on the importance of reaching a binding agreement. A legally enforceable treaty that works across borders would allow governments and corporate entities to rely on the promises made by others, which encourages both compliance and co-operation.

Polar Bear Cub studying his reflection in Norway (x)

Polar Bear Cub studying his reflection in Norway (x)

However, fixating on the creation of a legally binding deal may inadvertently dissuade countries from submitting ambitious INDC targets. This is because, practically speaking, international treaties – like any contract – are entered into when the individual parties fundamentally believe they will be able to deliver on their obligations. In order to verify such compliance – ie “promise keeping” – formal scrutiny of progress made on emissions reduction will be required. This would require nearly 200 different countries – each with their own constitutions, electoral processes, and economic realities – to agree on the requisite transparency, accountability and punitive (sanctioning) mechanisms.

Would removing the goal of reaching a strict, legally binding treaty allow negotiators the flexibility they need to encourage practicable, tangible action? Might a bottom-up or grassroots approach – fuelled and directed by industry and NGO players alike – make the most meaningful progress?