Róisin Finnegan, Intern: Law and Climate Atlas, University of Cambridge

13 Dec 2023

As we launch our updated Law and Climate Atlas 2023, we talk to one student intern who worked on the project about her research and why the Atlas is an indispensable tool for lawyers and law firms. Róisin Finnegan joined the Law for Climate Action programme during the summer of 2022. She is now a Pupil Barrister at Six Pump Court Chambers.
image of Roisin Finnegan

When and why did you first become interested in the topic of climate change?

It has always been something I was aware of and interested in, but at the age of 14, I visited Mont Blanc and saw the rate at which glaciers were melting annually as a result of global warming marked on the mountain. It was shocking to see how accelerated this had become in recent years.  It was the first time that I’d noticed the tangible impact of human activity on the planet, and it truly resonated with me that people would have to change their behaviour to stop the harmful effects of climate change.

Later as an undergraduate student, I studied refugee and asylum law and learned about the growing issue of climate-induced migration. This prompted me to study environmental law where I learned about the foundations of environmental law and became interested in the disproportionate impact of climate change on women. The work of Mary Robinson in highlighting issues of gender and climate change was particularly influential. I also enjoyed researching how the fast fashion industry was contributing to our carbon footprint. I began making lifestyle changes to reduce my personal carbon footprint, including buying predominantly second-hand clothing and eating mostly vegetarian food.

How did you first hear about the Law and Climate Atlas and what made you apply for the internship?

I became aware of the CCE while studying for my master’s degree in Cambridge. I attended several of the Fireside Chat events hosted by the Centre which highlighted different perspectives on how to advance climate action before I saw the internship advertised. I knew I wanted a career in climate change and environmental law, and I had some academic knowledge of these fields but no professional experience. I’d already secured my pupillage for the following autumn in a Chambers with an environmental law specialism, so the internship was a great opportunity to bridge the gap between study and my career.

The project of researching the Law and Climate Atlas seemed like a unique challenge with a practical focus. It was an opportunity to think creatively about a complex issue, and to address a significant knowledge gap in the industry.

What did you do during the internship?

During the project, I was first tasked with researching the intersections between three different areas of law and climate change, specifically, trade law, environmental law and planning law. This involved first assessing the legal risks of climate change in these areas of law. For example, in trade law, climate-related legal risks affecting trade actors range from extreme weather events raising costs of trade by disrupting trade patterns and affecting transport infrastructure, to influencing whether trade remedies are to be measured by the Trade Remedies Authority to the Secretary of State for International Trade.

After looking at the climate-related legal risks, I investigated how the areas of law could help to address the problem of climate change and assist the UK in achieving net zero. For example, in the area of planning law, the built environment is a major contributor to the GHG emissions which are hindering the UK’s transition to net zero. Planning law and local authorities therefore have a crucial role to play in ensuring the UK remains on target to achieve net zero. For example, retrofitting existing buildings to improve their energy performance and reducing carbon emissions is a crucial infrastructure challenge for the UK in achieving net zero.

My day-to-day work consisted mainly of reading academic articles, looking at recent examples of legislation and caselaw concerning climate change, and drafting my findings. The work was predominantly desk-based, although I met with experts sometimes to learn more about their specialist areas. I later had the opportunity to assist with researching and drafting additional sections and editing several of the sections.

Everybody was welcoming and helpful at the CCE and I enjoyed working with other interns from different backgrounds and disciplines, all united by the same goal and the same passion for the environment.

What did you learn about the law and climate change during your research and were there any surprises?

My research made me realise that every area of law is affected by climate change and can be used to assist the UK in achieving net zero. It’s obvious that environmental law is fundamental to climate change, but it was fascinating to discover links with less obvious areas of law. For example, another area I researched was immigration law which on its face, appears more relevant for climate change adaptation rather than mitigation. However, I realised that there are opportunities for immigration law to help the UK meet its net zero targets. One way is through opening up visa laws to combat labour shortages in certain fields, for example on farms, which have suffered from a recruitment crisis following Brexit. If we can harvest more efficiently in the UK, we can increase the UK’s self-sufficiency, import less, thus reducing food miles and food wastage. This is crucial considering that half of the UK’s carbon footprint emanates from the invisible cost of imports.

Another key thing I learned is that the transition towards renewable energies can be economically beneficial for companies. There’s often a misperception that climate change policies are more costly, but research shows otherwise. A recent Nature Climate Change journal article revealed that fossil fuels are devaluing over time and almost half of all fossil fuel assets may be worthless by 2036 because of the net zero transition which is estimated to leave between 8-10 trillion pounds of stranded assets.

Another crucial and related point is the importance of there being a just transition to net zero. All areas of law relating the climate change are more complex than they first appear, because policies always affect people and livelihoods. If there isn’t a just transition, trade actors or the UK Government risk facing legal challenges. This was illustrated by a case before the Chilean Supreme Court, Company Workers Union of Maritima & Commercial Somarco Limited v Ministry of Energy (2021). Here Chile was required to provide a just transition strategy in achieving net zero taking into consideration the livelihoods of those losing employment as a result. We therefore need to understand not only who is adversely affected by climate change, but who will be affected by the transition to renewable energy.

Why is the Law and Climate Atlas important and who might find it useful?

If we are to limit warming to 1.5 °C and meet emissions targets, there is an increasing realisation that several tools need to be used both from a legal and policy perspective. The Law and Climate Atlas really epitomises this from a legal point of view.The Law and Climate Atlas demonstrates in a creative and unique way that all areas of law are affected by climate change and can be used in innovative ways to support a transition towards net zero. It is useful for lawyers in every area, especially the less obvious ones which can play a vital role in tackling the climate crisis, such as company law, immigration law, and contract law. Its usefulness as a resource has been noted – it was great to hear recently at the UKELA Annual Garner Lecture that legal professionals had been directed to the resource by the Law Society.

All of us need to become more climate-aware and more ambitious with our targets for the future. It’s a resource that I’ll continue to use professionally myself because it’s not just theoretical, it’s a practical guide with lots of interesting, real-life examples and suggestions. The level of research and fact-checking is incredibly high, including the involvement of experts in reviewing each section. Structurally, it is highly accessible and easy to navigate, and it provides an excellent springboard to further research in every area with relevant citations and links to resources included.

How did you develop professionally during the internship, and did it change the way you think about law and climate change?

The project encouraged me to delve in detail into areas of law that were previously unfamiliar to me. I developed my skills of critical analysis, and the internship required me to think outside the box to find solutions to the diverse and complex issue of climate change. I enjoyed learning about recent developments in litigation both internationally and domestically. From Duarte Agostinho and Others v Portugal before the European Court of Human Rights, to the recent ClientEarth v Shell case – it is really encouraging to see such ambitious cases being taken in what is a movement that shows no signs of slowing down. Of course, there are limitations to using human rights or company law, for example, to bring climate litigation and litigants often have difficult hurdles to surmount in terms of standing, but this litigation shows that it is possible to achieve results in the court which is incredibly motivating.

Working on the Law and Climate Atlas made me feel more hopeful about achieving net zero because it opened my mind to the wide range of tools at our disposal as lawyers. It shows that if we all play our part and think creatively about solutions, we can lever a huge effect on climate change. Working on the project has also made me think more broadly about how the legal system could adapt to assist in tackling climate change – I think an International Court for the Environment could be an additional solution to strive for.  I’m proud to have been part of the project and I’m excited to see how it will expand in the future.