Lawyers around the world are using the power of the law for people & planet

With COP26 just around the corner, we’re seeing a huge number of companies committing to reducing their carbon emissions to ‘net zero.’ This is encouraging and relatively new territory without many blueprints to follow. Yet, there are still few incentives or enforcement mechanisms to keep well-intentioned companies on track and bring others on board.

We sat down with Ashoka Fellow James Thornton, founder of ClientEarth, to understand how a coalition of lawyers from across the world is using the power of the law to change the rules of finance and rebalance our relationship with the planet. You can watch the full conversation hereHere are a few highlights.

Why the law is a powerful leverage

James opened up by sharing his own personal journey, and why he gravitated towards becoming a lawyer. It all came from his love for nature, which was nurtured since childhood.


He called his organization ClientEarth because “the earth and everyone who lives on her is the client. So everyone on the call today — You’ve never met me but I’m your lawyer because I’m trying to stop climate change and preserve nature.” They help write laws in parliaments around the world that reflect the best science and enforce them in courts. When the rules encourage all of the worst behaviours that have led us to climate change, there’s one thing left to do: change the rules of the game. 


Using the law to speed up the transition from coal to renewables

ClientEarth and their coalition of lawyers have stopped the development of a whole generation of coal-fired power stations in Europe through corporate law.


They’ve also made sure that pension funds in the UK, which are among the top investors in non-renewables, are obligated to take climate risk into account when putting together their portfolios. For more on this, you can also read this recent Forbes article.


Optimism going into COP26

Just weeks ago, the UN’s major scientific report (IPCC) came out with a landmark assessment that proves “it is unequivocal and indisputable that humans are warming the planet.” The UN’s Chief cautioned that every bit of action moving forward matters urgently. Government leaders will have a chance to get serious about achieving “net zero” commitment when they meet at the UN’s climate change conference — COP26 — in November. James says governments will need to commit to much more ambitious carbon emission cuts than they have so far to do good on the Paris Agreement. And invest more than $100 billion per year in emerging economies’ energy transition plans.

Lucky for us all, James is an eternal optimist. Among the reasons for his optimism: China’s recent commitment to move away from coal entirely, a change ClientEarth has a lot to do with.


“Every lawyer is now a climate change lawyer”

Looking across the work of countless social entrepreneurs working on Planet & Climate, we’ve noticed an encouraging pattern. Social entrepreneurs are creating showing us that everyone has a role to play and creating pathways for us all to step into our changemaking power. James and the team at ClientEarth are doing just that with lawyers. “Everyone can use their technical skills to do something about this,” he said.


Listen to the full conversation here.

Follow @JamesThorntonCE & @ClientEarth on Twitter.