Dr Samuel Ruiz-Tagle, University of Cambridge

01 Feb 2023

The Centre for Climate Engagement’s spotlight interview series explores law for climate change through the lens of a range of experts. Dr Samuel Ruiz-Tagle, Research By-Fellow in Administrative Law and Governance at the Centre for Climate Engagement, considers the complexities of decision making aligning the needs of local communities with national objectives to deliver net zero.
Samuel Ruiz-Tagle

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

It has been an interesting journey for me and possibly not as direct as some others. Before I returned to academia, I worked in Santiago, Chile, practicing as a lawyer in the private sector. I was mostly involved in the development of nationally significant infrastructure projects such as power plants, ports, mining operations, and major housing schemes. Activities around the management of natural resources are a significant part of the economy of the country, and I advised organisations conducting that type of businesses.

In 2016, I moved to the US to undertake a Master’s in Environmental Law and Policy at Stanford Law School. At the time, interest in climate change was gaining quite a lot of momentum – the Paris Agreement had been adopted in December 2015 and climate related issues had also become a more common theme in the political debate. I had the opportunity to enrol in some fantastic courses exploring the legal and economic foundations of the Paris Agreement and issues around climate change. It was a real eye-opening experience for me. I also had the opportunity to listen to Al Gore present a lecture at Stanford about the role of renewable energies in delivering a sustainable economy. All of this was really interesting to me because I could listen to the other side of environmental arguments – I had previously been involved in environmental problems and issues from a developer’s perspective and my postgraduate education offered a different angle.

I moved to the UK in 2017 to begin my doctorate on administrative law, with an emphasis on English planning law, which governs land development. My PhD didn’t directly tackle climate change issues, given that my focus was on creating a theoretical framework for understanding the role of law in land transformation more widely. That said, it was completing my doctorate together with my professional and academic experience in the US which led me to where I am today – working on the ways in which planning and administrative law can help to address climate change issues in the existing English legal regime.

While my background has not necessarily presented a direct route to thinking about action for climate change, it does equip me with the ability to see the full picture. For example, I recently read a news article about a situation in the West Midlands whereby a local council was granting planning permission for a major development comprising a multi-storey carpark that will be built as part of a new HS2 interchange station. My initial reaction is to think the decision not forward thinking in the current environmental climate. But at the same time, I do understand the bigger picture will include the mayor and local council wanting to bring jobs to the area and to attract investment that will bring economic resources not being supplied by the central government. Local government is accountable to the local community and has to face really difficult and immediately pressing challenges for example job creation and improvement of local infrastructure. I try to keep this balance in my work as well – we need to listen to the other side, otherwise we can’t engage in meaningful debate.

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

My main area of work is administrative law, especially planning law. One project I am working on is exploring different ways in which existing planning laws and policy can help us to deliver climate friendly development and net zero. We have reached a critical point in domestic climate law because in the UK the buildings sector is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Another project is looking at heritage assets and climate change. This is another interesting area because according to data collected by Historic England, the UK has the oldest housing stock in Europe, with nearly 2 million dwellings in conservation areas, and potentially many of these dwellings will require retrofitting to improve energy efficiency. I am exploring whether existing planning law and policy and regulations are fit for that purpose too, or whether some changes are required. I recently contributed written evidence to a Public Bill Committee set up by the House of Commons proposing legislative changes to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. My written evidence looked at the legal reforms relating to the planning system, and the way that land development is approached in that context proposing changes to the existing planning regime to take climate change into account in the assessment of every development proposal. I often maintain a pragmatic approach in order to develop research projects that can be useful to policy and decision makers. I value evidence-based work with real-world impact.

What makes law for climate action so timely and important?

The law has always been key to tackling social, economic, and environmental problems. For example, the social and sanitary problems caused by the urbanisation process associated to the industrialisation of the economy and society in the 19th century required Parliament to pass legislation – the first Town and Country Planning Act – in this country. This created new administrative regimes and bodies to tackle new issues emerging from increased urbanisation. I think that with climate change, we see similar dynamics. The Climate Change Act 2008 established a new regime for reducing emissions, granted powers to new institutions for example the Climate Change Committee, and also created legal duties. I do think there is something distinct perhaps in the case of climate change, which has to do with the fact that climate change does not only entail the creating of a new body of law, or a new legal subject or a new legal discipline, but rather it affects law across the board. This is something that we are just beginning to explore and to understand – and the Centre for Climate Engagement is doing very interesting work in this regard with its recently launched Law and Climate Atlas that maps the way in which climate change affects the development of the law.

While law is important for establishing frameworks for structuring and guiding action, it can’t do everything. There is the need for organisations and bodies that operate alongside the law such as the Centre for Climate Engagement and Chapter Zero working with non-executive directors and private companies to identify opportunities to progress the climate agenda in these settings where sometimes there is no clear legal framework regulating what to do.

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

NIMBYism – taking a not-in-my-back-yard attitude towards renewable infrastructure projects needed for delivery of net zero. I know this is a very complex issue and one I believe needs more focus because it involves the perennial issue of striking the right balance between local and national interests. Important renewable energy infrastructure projects can attract strong local opposition which can lead to the refusal of planning permission. Of course, local communities should always be heard, and local views should always be taken into account meaningfully in the making of land use decisions that are going to affect that community’s immediate surrounding and potentially their lifestyle.

But I also believe that in some exceptional cases, for example, when it comes to the development of projects which support national interests such as net zero, those national priorities should also be given significant consideration and the law should in some ways recognise that fact. This is not currently recognised by the existing regime. It is a complex and perplexing issue for which I don’t have any answers at the moment – but I think it needs to be looked at.

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

I think the fact that there is so much awareness of climate change now makes it impossible not to see the importance and the urgency of the challenges. This wasn’t the case when I was studying at university or when I was practising law – I started to practice around 13 years ago and there was less understanding of these issues back then. It was after the Paris Agreement that climate change started gathering momentum at the international level and national governments began to enact climate legislation. The UK was the first country to pass a Climate Change Act in 2008, the first G7 economy to set a net zero target in 2019, and many local authorities are thinking about how to include similar targets in their policy frameworks – some have already done so. Momentum to take action has permeated the different layers of government, which is something that I find really encouraging.

COP27 has recently concluded. What are your thoughts following this year’s event?

More work needs to be done at the local level. We’ve spent quite a few years discussing climate change issues at the international level and, following the Paris Agreement, a process of implementation began at national levels creating national domestic legal frameworks. I feel that we now need to be looking at what local authorities can do on the ground. The Centre for Climate Engagement has completed some very interesting work in this area exploring and explaining the benefits of locally determined contributions (LDCs).These are similar to the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that exist at the national level, but are decided and implemented by local authorities.

Operating at the local authority level provides another lever for engaging more people – if you’re engaging at a local level with all the stakeholders, more people are buying into the idea and become part of the process of implementing change.

From the point of view of land development, we know that the construction and built environment sector contributes 20% of UK emissions. This is an area we have to focus on if we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deliver net zero. Most land development decisions are made at the local level where decision makers usually face tough questions about what to prioritise – jobs and economic growth for the local area or climate change objectives?

Some might say that it’s easier to make decisions and create frameworks to implement climate policy at a central government level and promote environmental, economic and social outcomes in the abstract. But most of the time it is local authorities that are actually making the decisions in concrete development proposals; they need more support and resources because the decisions made at the local level have immediate impact on that community. While this presents a challenge, it is also a potential opportunity to make a positive difference. It is an opportunity to tailor decisions to meet the needs of local communities while being aligned with national objectives.

Contact: Dr Samuel Ruiz-Tagle