Professor Harro van Asselt, University of Cambridge

09 Jul 2024

The Centre for Climate Engagement’s spotlight interview series explores law for climate action through the lens of a range of experts. Professor Harro van Asselt holds the Hatton Professorship in Climate Law at the University of Cambridge and is a Fellow at Hughes Hall. We asked him to share his research and his experiences as he approaches the end of his first year in Cambridge.
Harro van Asselt

What brought you to Hughes Hall, and how have you found Cambridge so far? 

I came here for the Hatton Professorship, which is the first endowed climate law professorship in the UK and at Cambridge. This position offers amazing opportunities. With the strength of the Cambridge brand behind me, I believe I can help set the agenda for how law can contribute to climate action. 

The experience has been a fascinating learning journey. I’ve learned much about how an 800-year-old institution operates, with its advantages and challenges. There’s a lot of flexibility, but also many old rules and procedures to learn as an outsider. The University has many moving parts, especially around climate change and sustainability, including initiatives like Cambridge Zero and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. 

I really enjoy that there’s always something happening, especially during term time. There are many events and great people giving talks, which has been very inspiring.

When and why did you become interested in climate change and how do you use your career to help tackle it?

My journey began toward the end of my law studies, when I became interested in how law can serve the public interest, particularly focusing on human rights and environmental issues. My first job at the Institute for Environmental Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam involved projects that highlighted the cross-cutting nature of climate change. Both the causes and consequences of climate change span various sectors, meaning you can’t just focus on one area of law. You need to understand how different bodies of law interact. This comprehensive approach to the complexity of climate change as a social and environmental challenge has been a major driver in my work. 

A formative experience was being part of the climate youth delegation at COP 11 in Montreal in 2005. Our group included amazing people from countries like China, Russia, Argentina, and Kiribati. Hearing stories from people affected by climate impacts and those advocating for environmental justice was profound. We developed a common youth position and tried to convince governments to align with it. This eye-opening and sometimes sobering experience strengthened my motivation to tackle the climate problem. 

As for my role, I don’t think academics or lawyers can or should solve the problem alone. Climate change involves multiple issues, and no one person or profession can dictate the solution. I see myself as a small cog in a larger machine that includes many other professionals—lawyers, social scientists, and natural scientists. My focus is on aligning the legal response with scientific imperatives.  

Lawyers are crucial in identifying needed legal reforms and using existing rules to tackle climate change. Academic lawyers should also highlight where the law may hinder climate action and identify concepts and principles that support or obstruct it. This is where they can make a significant impact. 

What is the specific focus of your current work in relation to climate change? 

One area of my work focuses on the interactions between climate change and trade. I’ve long been interested in how trade policy can strengthen climate action and when trade-related climate measures are compatible with both trade and climate law. A recent example is the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, which impacts trade flows. The UK is now preparing a similar measure. My role is to highlight design and implementation options that align with both trade and climate law, considering the impacts on both trade flows and on the effectiveness of climate action. 

Another area of my work centres on fossil fuel production. Ten years ago, this was relatively unexplored territory, with only NGOs and climate activists advocating to “leave it in the ground”. Academically, it wasn’t taken seriously for a long time. I worked with colleagues at the Stockholm Environment Institute to quantify the impacts of measures to leave fossil fuels in the ground through modeling studies and examined how legal and governance frameworks could support or hinder these measures. My work now focuses on international cooperation and how countries address fossil fuel production. Recently, countries have formed non-binding coalitions to phase out oil and gas and have shown interest in developing a fossil fuel treaty. I’m thinking about how such a treaty could look and work. 

I’m also interested in national-level litigation by NGOs against states and companies over fossil fuel production. This includes challenging individual projects and producers like Shell. I focus on the validity of arguments and how they play out in different jurisdictions. For example, the market substitution argument claims that if Shell stops producing fossil fuels, someone else will. Similarly, shutting down a coal mine might lead to coal being sourced elsewhere. I’m interested in how plaintiffs and courts make or respond to these arguments beyond their scientific validity. 

What makes law for climate action so timely and important?

Twenty years ago, there was little interest in climate action, but that has changed significantly. Climate change is now mainstream. In the mid-2000s, attention grew due to Al Gore, IPCC reports, and movies like “The Day After Tomorrow” but it remained niche. Today, newspapers regularly cover climate developments, impacts, and related court cases. 

The costs of climate action —social, human, and financial—are huge, and change needs to happen now, or rather, it needed to happen yesterday. The UN calls this the critical decade, where we have just a few years to bend the emissions curve, ensuring that emissions stop growing and then rapidly decrease them. This requires major transformations, and we can’t emphasise the urgency and drastic measures needed enough. 

Law and policy play a crucial role in transforming the energy, agricultural, and other sectors. While we have emissions-cutting technologies, they need rapid scaling. Investors and companies need confidence in their investments. Law provides stability; for example, enshrining a net-zero target by 2050 in a climate change act helps investors plan. Interim targets also help with planning. Climate law is key in this process. 

What are the climate issues that keep you awake at night?

A few things can keep me awake at night, mainly the risks of inaction within our current time frame. One concern is populists taking aim at climate change, as we’ve seen in the US and now in my home country, the Netherlands. The needle has shifted over the past 20 years. Even some right-wing parties no longer question the science as much; they mainly question the costs of climate action and whether those costs are proportionate to the benefits. However, with more of these people in power globally, we might see other countries following this trend, which could stymie climate action exactly when we need it most. This worries me not just for climate action but for the direction these societies are heading. 

Another concern is the potential for climate fatigue. Five years ago, during the European elections, there was a strong shift towards Green parties and green-minded parties, influenced by the Fridays for Future movement and Greta Thunberg. Now, five years later, we see young people, not just those typically considered conservative, growing tired of constant climate change news. They’re shifting their focus to other priorities like the cost of living and immigration. 

The amount of information on climate change hasn’t necessarily led to a proportionate increase in interest in climate action. I worry that people might get tired of talking about it, undermining the public support needed right now to ensure action is taken. 

What positive climate related stories or developments have you seen in your career?

One major change over the past decade is the rapid drop in the cost of renewables like Solar PV, and batteries. Adoption of these technologies has been quicker than expected in some countries. For instance, coal use in the UK is now at its lowest since the Industrial Revolution. These developments show that the economic case for non-fossil fuel technologies is strong globally. When renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels, the shift becomes easier. 

Another positive story comes from countries like China, where a lot of action is needed. Emissions there seem to be peaking, which is necessary, though whether they will fall rapidly afterwards remains to be seen. 

With my background in international law, I find it interesting to see the impact of international climate change law, particularly the Paris Agreement. I’m not making a strong statement about the Paris Agreement’s effectiveness, but it’s notable that the predicted temperature increase in 2015 was much higher than it is now. Whether this is entirely due to the Paris Agreement is debatable, but there seems to be a correlation. 

Lastly, there has been significant activity by non-state actors in the past decade. Previously, people focused on what governments were doing in terms of laws and emission reductions. Now, we see companies, investors, NGOs, religious organisations, and universities all taking on climate action commitments. Some are more honest than others in their efforts, but it’s clear that we can’t rely solely on international processes to deliver climate action. We need change across all societal actors, and that has been happening. 

Have any current affairs in climate law caught your attention? 

Recently, the UK Supreme Court ruled in favour of a woman arguing that the environmental impact assessment for a fossil fuel project in Surrey needs to consider the so-called scope three emissions. This means they must take into account the emissions of the product when it’s burned. For fossil fuel projects, the majority of emissions come from this stage.  

This is a huge development in the UK for several reasons. Firstly, there are other fossil fuel projects still under approval in the UK, and they will now also be scrutinised for their scope three emissions. Whether they get approved or not is uncertain, but it’s now less likely they can proceed without considering these emissions.  

Secondly, the UK has portrayed itself as a climate leader, especially with the organization of COP 26 in 2021. However, internally, they are still betting on oil, gas, and even coal. There is no strong economic case for this, and while there are dependencies, particularly in Scotland, on oil and gas, we need to start planning for the transition of these communities as we phase out fossil fuels. If we don’t limit fossil fuel production, we will not reach our 1.5-degree goal.  

This ruling might set a precedent for other common law countries facing similar decisions. From my perspective, it’s a major victory because it signals to a new government that depending on oil and gas might be problematic from a legal perspective. 

Read a full profile of Professor van Asselt and a list of his publications on the Hughes Hall website here