One way to make the UK’s pretensions for global climate leadership a reality

David Hunter explains why he feels the publication of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill could mark a turning point in the fight against the climate emergency.

It is a bitter irony that humanity has for some precious time known how to address the causes of climate change, but has lacked the collective will to do so. 

With Britain gaining scope for more unilateral action outside the EU and playing the role of host of COP26 in 2021, it has the chance to display a level of international leadership in keeping with how it likes to regard itself.

So far it has seemed reluctant to seize the opportunity. However, the job has been made easier with the publication of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, a private members’ bill promoted by Caroline Lucas. It offers a credible set of proposals which, politics aside, the government could readily adopt to demonstrate genuine commitment on this agenda. It is also a potential focus for the public to rally around, providing a coherent answer to the question, ‘but how do we reduce our emissions and impact on nature at the scale and in the time demanded of us?

This bill is a blueprint for the UK to show the world how to make the aspirations underpinning the Paris Agreement a reality. It requires the government to commit to and deliver on both greenhouse gas absolute emissions reductions and measures of robust ecological restoration within prescribed time limits. These will accelerate the country’s progress to net zero emissions whilst mitigating the damaging impact of its ecological footprint, in each case with appropriate urgency.

Within the legal framework proposed by the bill there is still room for the government to settle the detail of the relevant strategies, informed by recommendations from citizens’ assemblies focussed on the issues. This is one of the attractive aspects of the Bill. It broadens the conversation, taking it beyond the corridors of Whitehall and enabling a greater breadth of voices to inform the discussion around how a just transition is achieved to deliver on the necessary climate and ecological targets, potentially paving the way for greater public acceptance of challenging changes ahead.

Some may say that, regardless of the merits of the content of the bill, there is little point supporting it as it is unlikely to make it onto the statute book. This ignores the fact that the Climate Change Act 2008 was itself borne out of a private members’ bill, proposed by Michael Meacher in 2005. The CEE Bill may not directly become legislation in its current form, but that does not mean it should be dismissed. It offers all of the following:

  • a valuable distillation of the issues that matter and the sort of reforms that are required
  • anticipation of some typical objections and means of addressing them
  • a litmus test against which to assess claims of meaningful engagement with these crises: what exactly do you object to about each element of this bill? What better suggestion do you have to get us where we need to be by 2030?
  • something tangible for interested parties to come together around, to demonstrate the strength and breadth of feeling which, in turn, is more likely to trigger serious engagement from the politicians.

We can do this last in several ways. As individuals we can write to our MPs, asking them to support the bill (over 80 already have) and if not, why not, because it seems one of the most important issues they will face in their time as a Member of Parliament?

We can also encourage our employers to voice their support for the Bill. Many businesses already have and an upcoming event in January is seeking to increase this further. Bates Wells is one of those firms which has come out in support. This was a relatively easy decision for us, as doing so is in line with the acknowledgement of the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis we made in September 2019 and related commitments to use law as a force for good and to collaborate with others to achieve positive change.

These are aspirations which are by no means unique to us. We know many lawyers and law firms who take pleasure and pride in using the law for positive social impact – the Chancery Lane Project is one current demonstration of this. Professing public support for the bill and inviting colleagues to do so is a small but possibly significant step to enhance the prospect of the necessary measures being committed to in the necessary timeframe, both here and abroad.

A common feeling in 2020 has been one of overwhelm: whether with the pandemic and its emotional and economic consequences; with threats to core elements of democracy and the rule of law on both sides of the Atlantic; or with the ongoing climate and biodiversity crises. Progress in relation to each depends upon multiple interventions by multiple parties. Supporting the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill is one way, individually and collectively, we can act to make a difference.


This information is necessarily of a general nature and doesn’t constitute legal advice. This is not a substitute for formal legal advice, given in the context of full information under an engagement with Bates Wells.

All content on this page is correct as of November 19, 2020.