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Using the law to protect people and the planet

We shoot at big targets

An interview with Dimitri de Boer of ClientEarth

What are your goals?
We want to use the law to protect people and the planet.

Why focus on the law?
The law sets a moral bottom line in society for what is acceptable. We outlaw theft, for example, because it crosses a moral line. It’s similar with the environment.

If there is a major problem in society, and you pass a law, then enforce it for a few years, obeying the law just becomes common sense. The problem is solved.

China is a good example. Around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the government began legally mandating disclosure of environmental information, such as air pollution levels, which at the time were really severe. Soon after, an Air Quality Index had become available on people's smartphones. Suddenly, everyone knew exactly how good (or bad) the air was on any given day. That led to dramatic improvements in air quality, and in people’s awareness of the environment.

So how do you actually use the law to improve the environment?
In Europe, we take governments to court. We shoot at big targets: major oil companies, national governments, the European Union. We just took the European Central Bank to court over their quantitative easing package. Money is flowing into business-as-usual sectors – not sectors that are strategic for our sustainable future.

In China, we work as an advisor to the government, supporting the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, legislators, the Supreme People’s Court, and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate—the equivalent of the Attorney General.

At COP26 in Glasgow, last year, the US and China agreed to work together to reduce carbon emissions. Does this give you hope that even rivals can work toward a common goal?
Yes! Unfortunately since then, US-China climate cooperation has been suspended. And there’s uncertainty around the next Presidential administration in the USA, so it is hard for China to consider the US a reliable partner when it comes to climate action.

That said, China and the US together emit 40% of the world's carbon, so we really need them to be committed to the climate transition. And many societal actors are committed.Some individual US states, for example, are actively de-carbonizing: by 2030, California aims to reduce greenhouse gases from buildings to 40% below where they were in 1990.

China, for its part, announced last September that it would not build any more coal-fired power plants overseas. As recently as 2019, China was spending US$6b to US$8b per year building new coal-fired plants. The decision to stop was hugely important. I'm hopeful that maybe China and the OECD countries can help developing countries leapfrog to a low-carbon future. 

What do you think about technology’s potential to reduce carbon emissions?
Some technology activities are very energy-intensive, like bitcoin mining. In fact earlier this year, a Chinese court invalidated a contract between two companies involved in Bitcoin mining because mining wasted so much energy.

But more broadly, I would say that ICT is more an opportunity than a threat. Tech sectors provide much higher GDP per unit of energy consumed than traditional industries. And ICT can be used to optimize economic efficiency and industrial processes, which will go a long way toward reducing the world's carbon emissions.

Also, technologies like remote sensing and AI can increase your effectiveness as an environmental watchdog. They can easily spot changes in the use of land forests, coastal areas, wetlands – and identify misuse of those natural resources. This is great for enforcing environmental laws and prosecuting those who violate them, because you’ve got data, you've got evidence. These are hugely important tools.

Where do you see room for improvement?
One area is the big e-commerce companies. They could really use their leverage to nudge people into more environmentally responsible behavior. For example, think of all the waste generated by the packaging of delivered items. These companies could use various tools on their platforms to push change among consumers, sellers, delivery companies. At a minimum, there should be a little box people can check when they place their order that says,Please give me sustainable packaging.It might seem like a small thing for any given order, but it would show the demand for such green behavior, and over time sustainable packaging would become the norm.

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