COP26 ‘will be a failure’ unless corporations legally accountable for emissions

AN EXPERT in global climate law has warned that COP26 will be a “missed opportunity” if no co-ordinated action is brought forward in Glasgow to ensure big polluters are held to account for their emissions.

The COP26 climate conference beings in Glasgow on October 31 – branded the last best chance of salvaging global efforts to limit warming below a dangerous 1.5C tipping point.

Much of the ambition for the summit has focused on ensuring governments bring forward solid plans to cut emissions by 2030 and become net zero by the middle of the century to keep the 1.5C ambition alive.

But leaders have been warned that without a legal framework to enforce corporations to end their contribution to the global climate crisis, COP26 will have failed to secure the action needed.

Raphael Heffron, Professor of global energy law and sustainability at the University of Dundee’s Centre for Energy, Petroleum and Mineral Law and Policy, has stressed that COP26 presents a “once in a lifetime” opportunity for international leaders to develop legal frameworks capable of forcing multinational companies to meet international targets.

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Professor Heffron, has warned that “existing legislation is basically insufficient”, meaning that “essentially governments are not doing their job and people are having to bring those companies to court and try and hold them accountable”.

Professor Heffron has insisted that national courts must be “given the power to accelerate the transition to cleaner energy”.

He added: “We are already seeing a desire in some countries for changing the rules which govern the activities of energy multinationals. Instead of allowing companies to apply their own social responsibility strategies, lawmakers are threatening to flex their muscles and link corporate activity with human rights.

“That means a future where energy companies will have to consider human rights issues across the energy lifecycle, from extraction, to production, to operation and supply, to consumption and finally to decommissioning and waste management.

“If governments are serious about protecting our planet for future generations, the activity of polluters must be intrinsically linked to its impact on the citizens of the world.”

READ MORE: Court orders Shell to cut carbon emissions

The warning comes after a landmark legal case in the Netherlands, in which Shell was ordered to cut its CO2 emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 – essentially forcing the energy giant to comply with global climate policy.

Professor Heffron believes that the case has highlighted a potential means by which governments could force corporations to meet the terms of the Paris Agreement, the legally binding climate change treaty signed by almost all nation states in 2016.

Professor Heffron said: “I guess there’s so much disagreement internationally on what to do in terms of climate change. Let’s say we have 197 governments turn up in Glasgow, they all agree on the science but there’s no agreement on how to respond to that science.

“If they do not tackle the problems with the companies, it will be a missed opportunity. Research data shows that 90 multi-nationals are responsible for around two thirds of the world’s CO2 emissions.

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“If nothing is targeted at those big 90 companies, it will definitely be a missed opportunity.

“Governments have the power to do lots of things but if they do not address companies who are responsible, that will be a wasted chance.”

Professor Heffron has pointed to international talks on eliminating tax havens as showing joined-up thinking across the globe can force powerful corporations to change their behaviour.

A global deal to ensure corporations pay a minimum tax rate of 15% was agreed by 136 countries last week and is set to be adopted at the G20 summit at the end of the month.

If pushed forward, the deal would end tax competition between governments to attract foreign investment.

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Professor Heffron said the tax model could be adapted for “carbon reduction plans” for corporations to be given “successive periods of five years to reduce their emissions”.

He added: “The corporation tax measure shows if there’s some proper momentum and interest in doing that, it can work.”

The expert said he was “pretty hopeful” a deal could be reached in Glasgow to ensure companies cannot avoid meeting climate rules – suggesting the focus has changed and there’s now money to be made by encouraging green investment.

He said: “People are beginning to see now is this is not just about climate, it’s about a new wave of green technology.

“People and governments are seeing all this technology and don’t want to be left behind as other countries use that technology. “

The Scottish Government has pledged to investigate whether a specialist environmental court could be established after the country’s legal system was found to be breaking international human rights and environmental law due to the extremely high costs of taking legal action.

READ MORE: SNP urged to set up specialist environment court after international law breach

Scotland’s legal system has repeatedly been found to be in breach of the Aarhus Convention with a UN committee calling for law reform “as a matter of urgency” with “a plan of action, including a time schedule” to be submitted to it by 2022.

Professor Heffron has welcomed the move, stressing “it’s about time there’s an environmental court” in Scotland.

He added: “We already have specialist courts for crime and commercial law so if you go to the commercial court you have the judges who focus just on commercial issues.

“I think it’s about time, we have the expertise who could be judges in those type of courts.

“The environment is such an important issue that we should have it already. To me, we would only be catching up with things in other countries.”

A COP26 spokesperson said: “Industry has a vital role to play in the fight against climate change.

“Working with business and encouraging companies to get behind the global transition to net zero has been a priority for the COP26 presidency.

“We are seeing progress, now with over 4,000 companies worldwide having committed to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and to set short term plans for immediate emission reductions, under the UN Race to Zero campaign.

“But we know that more action is urgently needed across all sectors. Accelerating climate action from business will be a key focus in Glasgow through our themed days and a wide programme of events featuring businesses taking ambitious climate action.” 

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992