A LAWYER’S GUIDE TO ADDRESSING CLIMATE DISRUPTION

Posted on February 14, 2019 by John C. Dernbach

Co-authored by Michael B. Gerard

Recent scientific reports by the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change depict the present and future consequences of climate disruption in increasingly urgent terms.  At the same time, according to a new poll, record numbers of Americans believe that climate change is real, that it is human caused, and that it affects them personally. 

But there is good news.  It is possible for the U.S. to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  We also have the legal tools to do the job—more legal tools, and a greater variety of tools, than we may have imagined. 

In 2014 and 2015, the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP)  published a technical report and a policy report on deep decarbonization in the United States—reducing U.S. greenhouse emissions by at least 80% by 2050.  The DDPP is a global effort to assess the technological and economic feasibility of deep decarbonization in 16 countries representing 74% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. reports conclude that “it is technically feasible” for this country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050.  They also conclude that the cost of this effort would only be one percent of U.S. gross domestic product, not including the many benefits that would come from doing so.   

Enormous changes would be required to achieve this level of reduction, the reports said.  The U.S. would more than double the efficiency with which energy is used.  Nearly all electricity would be carbon free or use carbon capture and sequestration.  Electricity production would also need to double because gasoline and diesel fuel for transportation, and oil and natural gas used for space heating and cooling and water heating, would be mostly replaced by electricity.  

These reports do not, however, discuss what legal tools would be necessary to achieve these outcomes.  In response, in late 2015, we began planning an edited volume to comprehensively analyze and explain the various laws that could be employed, building on the DDPP reports. The resulting book, Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States is being published by the Environmental Law Institute Press in March.  You can order a copy here.  In 35 chapters authored by 59 experts, adding up to 1,200 pages, the book identifies more than 1,000 federal, state, local, and private legal tools for deep decarbonization.   

To get the key messages of the book to the broadest possible audience, ELI has also published a Summary and Key Recommendations volume.  This book includes a thumbnail summary of each chapter, key recommendations by chapter, and a separate listing of recommendations organized by actor.  You can download this book here without charge.

Legal Pathways describes a dozen different types of legal tools.  As explained in greater detail here, these are not just the usual suspects (additional regulation, market-leveraging approaches, tradable permits or allowances), but also reduction or removal of legal barriers to clean energy and removal of incentives for fossil fuel use.  They also include information/persuasion, facilities and operations, infrastructure development, research and development, insurance, property rights, and social equity.  The wide range of types of legal tools provides great opportunity for building consensus.  One particularly important category, for example, is reduction or removal of legal barriers.

The book is thus a playbook for deep decarbonization.  In fact, various legal tools could be designed and combined to achieve quicker and deeper reductions than 80% by 2050, and even negative overall emissions.

This book is also a resource for lawyers because the laws it describes need to be proposed, drafted, and implemented on behalf of a wide variety of clients in many contexts.  The many types of tools also make clear that a variety of lawyers are important in this effort, including not only energy and environmental lawyers, but also finance, corporate, municipal, procurement, contracting, real estate, and other types of lawyers.

While both the scale and complexity of deep decarbonization are enormous, the book has a simple message: deep decarbonization is achievable in the United States using laws that exist or could be enacted. These legal tools can be employed with significant economic, social, environmental, and national security benefits.

Toward that end, we are launching a project to turn the recommendations into legal language—drafting federal and state statutes and regulations, model ordinances, guidance documents, transactional agreements, and the like.  We are well aware that a great many lawyers are already doing this kind of work, and that many more are feeling the need to respond to the challenges that climate disruption imposes.  We welcome lawyers from all backgrounds to join in our effort, and plan to work with ACOEL as well.  If you are interested, please contact us.



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