Recession stalls firms’ carbon footprint cuts

Nigel Knowles

Law firm network the Legal Sector Alliance (LSA), which seeks to establish best practice for the profession, has published a survey of its members, which together represent around a quarter of the solicitors in England and Wales.

The report, which has been launched to coincide with the Copenhagen negotiations for the next stage of the Kyoto protocol, indicates that 35 per cent of respondents achieved reductions in their carbon footprint during 2008-09, while more than half (55 per cent) anticipate carbon reductions during the coming year.

LSA chair Sir Nigel Knowles said: “The LSA is an outstanding example of what can be achieved by adopting a collaborative approach to combating climate change.”

Firms indicated that energy savings had been made by switching off ­computers, turning down heating, introducing energy-efficient lighting and air conditioning, encouraging employees to keep travel diaries, calculating individual employee carbon footprints and recycling IT equipment.

However, the report states that the downturn and apathetic employees have prevented further advancement. “The adverse business impacts of the ­current economic environment contributed to many organisations reporting that the payback period for investment in energy-­efficient and sustainable products and services can be too long,” says the report. “One global organisation highlighted that the recession had ­contributed to increased business travel as employees were increasingly working with clients in other jurisdictions.”

But Andrew Whitehead, head of the energy practice at LSA founder member Martineau argued that there should not just be a simple trade-off between economic savings and carbon reduction. “Firms should be doing things which both reduce their carbon footprint and improve their bottom line at the same time,” he said. “However, [it is more difficult in the current economic climate] to make capital expenditure such as greening your energy supplier.”

And many LSA members have pointed to the limited control they have over rented office space. “Seventy to 80 per cent of a firm’s carbon footprint is associated with its building,” said Whitehead. “Unless you downgrade the building, it doesn’t matter whether you reduce your total number of staff, you’ve still got that cost.”

However this may change with the implementation of the Carbon Reduction ­Commitment (CRC), which will be introduced by the UK Government from April 2010.

The scheme will oblige all firms whose electricity ­consumption is above a ­certain threshold to report their usage. Firms will have to forecast their consumption and buy allowances at £12 per tonne of carbon dioxide emitted. All businesses will have their results published in a league table.

Firms in managed premises may try to avoid the potentially complex reporting process, but the costs could still be passed on to them by their landlords.

Climate change is an increasingly important practice area for UK firms, according to the report. Around 43 per centof respondents advised clients “on opportunities and obligations arising from and under climate change law.” Allen & Overy, Linklaters and SJ Berwin are among the LSA’s City members that have advised on measures such as carbon trading and the clean development mechanism. In contrast, the LSA’s high street members often said that they had not provided advice in this area because it is not relevant to their area of work.

However, Whitehead said that this group of smaller firms could be missing a trick. “If you’re a high street practice advising on conveyancing you’ve got to think about the physical impact of climate change [and issues such as] installing photovoltaic panels and what happens when you move house.”

Last year the inaugural ranking of LSA firm footprints revealed that Allen & Overy, Lovells, Slaughter and May and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer had the largest carbon footprints per member of staff (The Lawyer, 11 December, 2008). The 18 founder members of the LSA will publish their latest carbon footprints later this month.

Law firms’ Green measures

Communication and employee engagement: Awareness days, emails, intranet pages, weekly newsletters and posters highlighting ‘green’ best practice. Incorporation of
sustainability training into employee induction process. Appointment of green champions in each office and environmental work included in pro bono activity.

Client advice: Assistance through client briefings, newsletters and e-bulletins, issues-specific publications and articles, presentations, seminars and workshops.