Professor Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger, Centre for International Sustainable Development Law 

03 Nov 2022

In this Centre for Climate Engagement’s law for climate action spotlight interview series, we explore law for climate change through the lens of a range of experts in their fields. This month distinguished professor, scholar and expert jurist in law and governance on climate change and sustainable development, Professor Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger, Senior Director of the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law and Executive Secretary of the Climate Law and Governance Initiative for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change COP27 sets out the importance of domestic regulatory reform to implement global treaty commitments on climate change. 
Prof Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger

When and why did you become interested in climate change?

Although I was born in England, I was raised on the west coast of Canada, where the impacts of climate change – not just in terms of rising sea levels and increasing storm intensity – are readily apparent. The changing climate has devasted ancient forests with wildfires, dried lakes and streams, eroded coastlines and degraded other crucial natural resources, especially those of First Nations peoples as the stewards for thousands of years.

My parents and grandparents had a very strong sense of stewardship and responsibility towards our society and nature. These days, my own sons continually inspire me. They are both climate strikers and deeply involved in trying to find solutions, one with science, technology and finance, the other through education and awareness, helping to change hearts and minds. They are both very aware of how the climate emergency affects their generation and generations to come, and are trying their very best within their spheres to make a difference. These high stakes focus and direct my work, particularly when it’s hard.

Climate change was evident to me from an early age when I became involved in helping to save the forests at the age of 12, as a leader of the Environmental Youth Alliance. At 17, I led a speaking tour to visit universities and schools across the Americas, travelling by land from Canada down to Chile and then up to Brazil, where the Earth Summit took place in 1992, and the dangers were already apparent. It was clear that the climate crisis – together with the biodiversity emergency for which sustainable development solutions are critical – would be the most important justice challenge of my generation.

At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, international treaties were signed, and we all committed to ensure our promises would be kept. I was involved in drafting the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as a youth delegate, and from that moment in 1992 most of my work has been focused on implementing the commitments undertaken. Following the Earth Summit, my studies and career were dedicated to making a difference in this field – and the commitment has continued throughout my life.

How confident are you in the ability of the UNFCCC process to drive climate action? 

Part of the challenge of the three Rio conventions (the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and the UNFCCC is that they engage nearly 200 countries from all regions of the world, and many struggle to meet basic human needs of their people. There are commitments in each of those treaties both to resolve environmental concerns, but also to support a more sustainable development for those communities. It has been clear in efforts to implement the Climate Convention that to secure higher ambition and to build trust, we need to pay equal weight to those promises – advancing climate law and governance, and sustainability together. Without this trust, which has been severely undermined over the subsequent 30 years, we inevitably face the devastating consequences that we are now seeing, and those impacts hurt the most vulnerable first and worst. 

The key, however, is to recognise that we are much better placed with global cooperation than without it. I’m viscerally aware of broken promises on all sides and it’s very hard to keep faith, to keep trust, and to keep the democratically-determined collaboration of an entire country – let alone nearly 200 countries and over 27,000 other organisations that are involved globally – without seeing the results of that action going in the right direction. Right now, they’re not. 

I remain deeply committed to a global process in which everyone’s views are welcome and considered, and in which we are able to identify those who are failing early enough and assist them to comply. The opposite of international cooperation – war – will certainly not help us solve climate change.

We do owe it to ourselves and to others to try to implement the commitments and promises that we’ve made – not just because as an international lawyer I consider it a matter of international justice – but because the UNFCCC offers a forum for those facing these terrible climate challenges to come together under a somewhat accountable, cooperative framework. 

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

As a law professor and jurist, the focus of my work is on climate law and governance. In my view, the commitments to reduce emissions, to adapt and become more resilient, and to change financial flows towards more sustainable development must be met; and legal and institutional reform is a key gap in our response. My research and legal work focuses on urgently needed innovations in the law, public policy reform and governance systems – and my teaching helps our education systems to scale up urgently needed capacity to implement and ensure compliance with the law. The key is systemic change, setting in place social, economic and environmental structures to deliver low carbon, net zero, climate-friendly, low greenhouse gas emissions (in other words, sustainable) development pathways, according to Article 2.1(c) of the Paris Agreement. 

I feel it is an important focus. If we put in place the systems to help train people in all areas of endeavour, including law and governance, to keep our climate commitments and to be part of local and global responses to climate change, then we have an exponentially better chance of keeping our commitments. 

I’m working on the domestic implementation of the UNFCC and Paris Agreement, especially to help the main actors whose current decisions and actions could make the biggest difference in the global response to climate change. These actors include countries and communities, the law and policymakers, the jurists, and also the civil society organisations and companies that have taken on pledges as part of COP26 in Glasgow and need all the help that we can give them to hold on to their pledges – and even go further. I am also a strong supporter of our students and youth movements, and their struggle to raise awareness about the climate emergency on all levels.

What does ‘sustainable development’ mean in practice? How can we reduce emissions without impacting vulnerable communities and economic development? 

At this time, it means advancing our world’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Climate change is a crucial part of this agenda – it is woven across all the SDGs, and also the focus of SDG 13 on climate action. Through a global consultation process that engaged thousands worldwide to help set those 17 goals and their 169 targets, and also the negotiations between countries of all regions, we have established a universal agenda. Just like human rights, which in practice mean something different if you’re a victim of child trafficking, a corporate CEO or an indigenous leader, so sustainable development can mean something different if you’re living in a coastal community that is vulnerable to slow onset sea level rise or extreme weather events, if you’re a city-dweller making greener lifestyle choices to reduce emissions, or if you’re a forest-dweller stewarding nature-based solutions to climate change. 

We need to find the most sustainable development alternatives that can work for each community, each country, each region – and just as cultures, languages and geographies differ, those pathways are always the same. We need changes in processes, systems and capacities to address the terrible development choices made over the years, in all regions of the world, and we need to be able to implement sustainable alternatives fast. If we can quickly direct trillions toward pandemic response and recovery, surely we can align trillions to universal SDGs? By aligning current investments and financial flows, and tracking and continuing to invest in carbon negative industries, technologies and sectors, for instance, we make just transitions to better livelihoods possible. 

What legal levers for tackling climate change have been most impactful?

In the UK, we’re seeing domestic regulatory and institutional reforms – changes in rules, standards, licensing and planning decisions across different sectors at all levels – which are making a difference. We’re also seeing changes in the rules that govern companies, and in the company’s own governance and contracting decisions. For instance, there have been changes in the rules and duties of corporate directors boards – climate risk disclosure – which sends an important signal to investors and global markets. 

Particularly for this country and others with similar legal systems, we can also see a set of further climate justice levers such as litigation, or loss and damage claims tribunals, being activated on climate change. This wave of climate litigation is increasingly having an important legal affect; judges have the chance to interpret the rule changes that have been made, and to consider the public policy and other issues that exist in this challenge and have to be addressed. Key levers across the law that we have set in place – whether it’s through regulations, corporate rules, litigation or international frameworks for cooperation – are crucially important. Underpinning these are our systems of legal education, both formal and informal, and especially the law that we teach in faculties that addresses key substantive disciplines – land use and land management, natural resources management, business management – that are just as important, possibly even more so. 

What action must we take in the years approaching 2030?

No country or community can fix this problem alone. We need to address the short-term nature of our legal, corporate, economic and social systems, creating space and vision that allows us to consider the impacts of our decisions at least seven generations forward, rather than one quarter, or seven years. As societies, we must take seriously the need to strengthen our legal systems so that everyone can make good choices, aligning our economic other decision-making with the Paris Agreement, the UNFCCC and our broader commitments in the SDGs. 

Which climate issue keeps you awake at night?

The climate issues that gave me nightmares at 12 years old are occurring right now, worldwide.  

As a child, I lived on an island just like we do here in the UK. I was concerned about sea level rise and flooding, about heat waves and forest fires that could devastate entire species and ecosystems, about hurricanes and other extreme weather events. It is inconceivable to me that anyone who watches the news would not understand that the terrible impacts of climate change are undermining decades of social and economic development globally, and are caused by human agency. The ignorance or powerlessness that lies behind lack of climate action concerns me as well. 

I’m deeply committed to justice. I’m deeply committed to keeping our promises. I’m holding on to my optimism, to my belief in human endeavour, creativity and innovation. I can see that our work to address these terrible impacts depends on mobilising commitments on a scale and scope we’ve possibly never attempted. Climate change is the justice issue of our generation, and also the opportunity of our generation – to change our current development path into a direction that does not lead to our own extinction, that is sustainable. 

Our laws are currently a mixed story – sometimes they are a sword or shield, they can foster or frustrate climate action. To take current impacts of climate change seriously, and respond with adaptation and resilience, we must find ways to be able to live more sustainably in this world where we have built so many beautiful things worth keeping. And to do that, our laws and legal education systems have to change. We have outlawed torture and slavery; we have fought for women’s voices and votes. We are capable, including through the law, of addressing climate change. It’s never going to be perfect – many instances of torture and trafficking continue; many voices remain marginalised or excluded. But the commitment to change is worth making, and defending. 

Within your career, what have you seen that has been good and offers hope?

I’ve seen an entire generation come together and rally in order to respond to climate change. I’ve seen education systems changing to strengthen climate change response capacity. I’ve seen laws changing, and people’s understanding of why it’s important to implement those laws changing. And just recently, I’ve seen many companies take on pledges and commitments that they are serious about keeping. At all levels of society, especially the youth, people are actually making a difference on this crucial problem and are doing their best. If we can convince everyone else to join in, we will be so much closer to solving the problem. For me, it’s a question of everyone doing what they do, being who they are, but ensuring that their lives contribute to finding the solutions that are necessary on all levels. These seeds we plant, especially among our students and the youth, give me hope.

Contact: Professor Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger, Senior Director of the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law