REUTERS | People enjoy the sunset at the seafront in Marseille, France, June 29, 2016. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Achieving net zero: in-house counsel’s critical role

In-house counsel can play a vital role in helping their organisations guard against greenwashing and achieve legitimate net zero by ensuring that they deliver on their environmental commitments, and it also means that individual counsel are aligning with their own values. This is a complex and fast evolving field, and Lawyers for Net Zero has been established to support in-house counsel to navigate it.

The number of environmental, social and governance (ESG) and climate risk indicators are growing exponentially, from the North American wildfires to the Central European floods, together with a myriad of legal, societal and economic factors. They all highlight the need for businesses to act rapidly if they are to become part of the solution and avoid reputational or regulatory failure.

A landmark judgment

We could write a book on all the indicators just from this year, but the landmark judgment issued by the Hague District Court in the case of Milieudefensie v Shell stands out. Global oil giant Shell was ordered to set and meet company-wide carbon emissions reduction targets of 45% below 1990 levels by 2030 in alignment with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The Shell case was the first of its kind but certainly won’t be the last. For example, Just Eat and the cruise operator Carnival have both recently been referred to the Financial Conduct Authority for failing to address how the climate crisis will affect their operations and finances in their investor reports. These and other examples signal to businesses that robust climate plans, and significant action, are not just optional but are crucial in helping to de-risk business operations and meet global net zero goals.

Moving beyond “pledge wars”

There has been an escalation in the “pledge wars”, with many companies under pressure from consumers and investors alike to set targets and explain how they will stick to their environmental goals. This is especially important ahead of the UN COP26 conference in Glasgow next month.

However, there has been a lack of clarity in the business community around ESG measurement and its regulation. This has led to accusations of greenwashing, where companies exaggerate their green credentials. Andrea Coscelli, Chief Executive of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) stated at the launch of their Green Claims Code that:

“Any business that fails to comply with the law risks damaging its reputation with customers and could face action from the CMA.”

It is against this backdrop that Lawyers for Net Zero comes in. The inspiration behind our non-profit was the recognition that there is a massive, but largely unrecognised, opportunity for in-house lawyers to play a key role in supporting their organisations in delivering the required action.

Our aim is to help in-house counsel leverage their roles as trusted advisers, and their responsibility for contracts and policies, to support their organisations in closing the gap between pledges and action. Their involvement will help protect their organisations from reputational, regulatory or even legal consequences.

We enable peer-to-peer learning via our Action Learning Groups, across a fast-growing community of in-house legal champions. These Champions are guided by our Net Zero Action Principles.

High-profile champions

Many in-house counsel have already joined Lawyers for Net Zero as champions, with individuals from organisations including:

  • Rolls Royce.
  • First Group.
  • Deutsche Bank.
  • Kingfisher.
  • Birmingham Airport.
  • Arup.
  • Zurich Insurance.

Our founding champions include Kirin Kalsi (General Counsel at E.ON UK), Mark Maurice Jones (General Counsel, Nestle UK) and Anthony Kenny (Assistant General Counsel, GSK), who comments:

“I joined an Action Learning Group to pilot the Net Zero Action Principles in April, and there are a number of ways it’s been helping. One immediate benefit is that it’s created a community of like-minded people coming together to share information and experiences, because we’re all on different points on the journey.

The more we help each other, the more powerful it will be. Going forward, we are creating a central knowledge hub to help others understand the challenges on how to influence the business and implement net zero legitimately.”

Our network enables in-house counsel to come together and share best practice and ideas for positively influencing internal colleagues and external suppliers. This support then allows them to advise their organisations on climate risks and opportunities in a more confident manner. As Kim Alcantara, Director of Legal at BetVictor, and another Lawyers for Net Zero champion comments:

“I’m certainly one of those people who didn’t have a clue where to start! Luckily, I found out about Lawyers for Net Zero and Adam Woodhall is guiding us through the best way to make meaningful change. I would highly recommend joining this group if you want to start making a difference.”

Fitting a complex jigsaw puzzle together

David Attenborough said in September 2020 that:

“Profound change can happen in a short period of time. This is starting to happen with fossil fuels. We may yet pull off a miracle and move to a clean energy world by the middle of this century.”

Net zero is a complex jigsaw and nobody knows what the end picture looks like, but we do already have most of the pieces we need. We must use our imagination and intelligence to start piecing the puzzle together in our businesses. In-house lawyers are ideally placed to help their organisations meet this challenge.

We have a limited number of places available on our next round of Action Learning Groups. To find out more about those, or the rest of our initiative, please follow our LinkedIn page or contact me:


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