Blog by Tabby Gould and Simon Tilling

On 25 and 26 June 2020, Burges Salmon’s environmental lawyers took part in the UK Environmental Law Association annual conference, bringing together the leading environmental law experts from across private practice, public sector, in house, the bar, consultancy and academia. The programme had a strong focus on the UK’s net zero GHG emissions agenda and the imperative for a sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Simon Tilling, Burges Salmon’s head of environmental law and Vice-Chair of UKELA, was one of the conference organising team. The UKELA conference is the place where the UK’s most influential environmental lawyers discuss the issues of the day and set the agenda for the coming year. Here are the key messages from the conference on net zero:

  • There is great anticipation of urgent action to address the fact that the UK is not on track to meet its Net Zero Target: as the UK begins to recover from Covid-19, there is a need to seize opportunities to build a new green economy. Lawyers from all parts of the economy will need to play a role, with environmental lawyers in a coordinating role at the heart of activities. The Chancery Lane Project is a good example of this.
  • Good regulation, legislation and policy is fundamental for the UK to achieve net zero. Environmental litigation (such as the Urgenda case and Plan B Earth case) has already started to shape the legal framework for environmental laws. Activist environmental lawyers will continue to grab headlines and businesses need to respond to real legal risks.
  • When businesses are setting their own net zero targets they need to consider and collaborate with their supply chain and stakeholders. Supply chain obligations through contracts need to be considered and legal frameworks are being stretched to make large corporations responsible for those in their sphere of influence.
  • Net zero and sustainability is being taken seriously at C-suite level and this will continue, and laggards will be exposed. One area of debate was whether there should be greater fiduciary duties on directors of companies to have regard to the environment when making business decisions. Whether this is driven through regulation or simply demanded by investors and stakeholders, the growth of ESG factors in investment cannot be ignored.
  • The UK needs to harness a net zero design of products, whether this is for small plastic products or large infrastructure projects. The lifecycle of products should form part of a circular cycle, and product materials should be net zero. Whether this is achieved through mandatory product design assessments and product passports, greater producer responsibility regimes or carbon price adjustments at the border, there was appetite to see real and lasting change which will impact all those seeking access to the UK’s market.