A scene from the westerns and cartoons of my childhood keeps playing in my mind. A trail of gunpowder leads to kegs of dynamite. The fuse is lit. Will the hero put the fuse out before the whole thing blows sky high? It’s a race against time.


What are advised emissions anyway?

Advised emissions begins and ends with the science – hence the reference to emissions. However, it is less about one more piece of counting and reporting, to be added to the Scopes 1, 2 and 3 many law firms are becoming familiar with. Rather it is a philosophy and a practice, based on a set of principles, which has the potential both to effect lawyers directly across the profession and to increase the impact we collectively have on how the climate emergency unfolds.

The philosophy (or theory of change) is that we are in a situation which demands all of us do all we can to minimise the overshoot on our carbon budget, with the aim of stabilising global temperature increases to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, which in turn will avert unconscionable death, destruction and disruption across the planet.

For lawyers, doing all we can goes beyond reducing the (relatively modest) emissions arising from doing our work and engaging with the greater leverage we have through our relationships with clients and the services we provide to them. If this happens at scale across the profession, and also across other professions, this will contribute to a cultural shift which will reframe what success looks like, driving 1.5°C aligned behaviours across the economy and society for mutual benefit.

Why should lawyers embrace this?

Like it or not, we are faced with the choice, through our lives and work, to be heroes or villains. Here is a snapshot of the climate science. Please do not do as I have on occasion and skip past it on the basis you think you know this already. You may well, but this must be the reference point for how we live now and we need to internalise the implications of the science to inform our behaviours and decision making.

There is a carbon budget. This is the amount of emissions that can still be generated before there is so much in the atmosphere that the 1.5°C goal cannot be met. Once emitted, the greenhouse gases remain there for centuries, meaning we condemn future generations to a far harsher world than the one we inherited. Even if we develop the means to extract those gases from the atmosphere at scale at some point in the future, temperature increases may have already triggered tipping points for irreversible changes to the climate and the ecosystems which depend upon it. If we do not remain within the carbon budget (and the very latest estimate is that we will, on our current trajectory, exhaust it within six years) and fail to contain temperature increases to 1.5°C, we still need to reduce emissions as rigorously as we possibly can to limit the ensuing harms.

Right now, the global economy is decarbonising at pace, while the effects of temperature increases are evident on every continent. Any law firm aspiring to longevity needs clients who are recognising this reality, seeing the threats and opportunities it presents and looking for advisors who can help them succeed in this future world. And they need to be that sort of advisor.

This means that what we choose to do, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, writes the future for us and our loved ones. We have that agency, particularly if we act collectively.

How does this translate in practice?

The first step for a firm is making a commitment to the advised emissions philosophy. This can be put into practice by applying the following principles.

Some have an internal focus. These include making it a pillar of the firm’s business strategy, with an emphasis on identifying and supporting clients transitioning to a zero carbon economy. The business development focus and resources pivot to this. Staff are trained, so that they are informed about the science, the legal and commercial implications for their clients, and how to communicate with clients confidently on this topic.

At the heart of advised emissions is the evolving relationship with clients. This is where the greatest potential for positive impact is and what, of course, business success depends upon. At its best, it involves supporting clients transition to being 1.5°C aligned businesses and helping them identify and implement ways to achieve this through their governance, supply chains, contracting, business models and more. It may also mean turning away from clients resistant to this trajectory, rather than enabling them to perpetuate harmful activities (in similar fashion to what firms currently do with the likes of tobacco, arms, etc).

Another critical aspect is how we might use our expertise to help shape the regulatory and policy environment to support a 1.5°C aligned world. This is likely to involve identifying blockers and enablers,  to advocate to remove the former and enhance the latter and, again, not to support trade bodies or clients advocating for policies and regulation that are 1.5 incompatible.

Finally, there are important external communications matters around this issue. It is essential, in terms of managing expectations of stakeholders, particularly clients and those whom we work with and employ, to be transparent about your firm’s approach to transition and emissions reduction and the implications of that for the services you provide and how you provide them. Measuring the shift in the work undertaken over time and the associated emissions related to the output of that work can inform your firm’s own decision making and demonstrate the progress being made. Reporting on that progress not only offers assurance that any claims the firm is making to be sustainable and responsible has a basis in fact; it also further socialises the advised emissions approach encouraging others to follow suit and positions the firm as one with a positive future focus.

The situation we are in (the future written over recent decades which is now our present) is not one fuse burning towards one dynamite keg: it is hundreds of fuses reaching powder kegs, exploding and those explosions setting off several more: fractal patterns repeating and multiplying. We don’t need one hero to save us. We need myriad actors making interventions, redirecting energies to less destructive goals, being intentional about how they use their time to make a positive contribution in response to the situation we are in.

This is beginning to happen, not least through the efforts of those firms engaged with the Legal Charter 1.5. It is happening at the UN level, as a Race to Zero Working Group launches a consultation document on this issue across the professional services (look out for a consultation being launched during COP28) and it is happening at the grassroots level as initiatives spring up such as Legal Voices for the Future, (re)purpose law and Gen-R law.

It is still possible to turn a blind eye but, recalling the science, why would you?

David Hunter is a senior counsel at Bates Wells