Dr Markus Gehring, University of Cambridge

03 Oct 2022

In this Centre for Climate Engagement’s spotlight interview series, we explore law for climate action through the lens of a range of experts in their fields. This month, Dr Markus Gehring, Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for European Legal Studies, University of Cambridge, reflects on the role of the law and the importance of sustainable development to drive climate change.   
Dr Markus Gehring

When and why did you become interested in climate change?

I was active in student politics when I was at University in Hamburg, Germany back in 1993, where I was a member of the green student group and responsible for environmental protection issues. This led to my interest in sustainable business practices – how the university could progress their entire estate towards sustainable architecture and to take climate change seriously. I discovered that despite the popularity of green policies, they weren’t at all prevalent institutionally and that students needed to attend meetings and secure resolutions to drive change. As the only student of law on the green team, I became the president of the Student Parliament and that was a real eye opener as to how much work was still to be done in the context of renewable sourcing and energy. I attended a large demonstration outside the first ever COP, held in Berlin in 1995 and demonstrating with close to 100.000 people in recently reunited Berlin made me think much more about climate change. The science was crystal clear – climate change constitutes an existential threat to humanity – and the international framework to get the results we needed was in place.  

The first COP I attended on the inside was the sixth, at The Hague in 2000, when I was a PhD student and also working at the university, specialising in trade law and the environment. It was very sobering because by that time I thought that climate change had been solved through the Kyoto Protocol agreement in 1997. In fact, there had not been much progress and the debates leading to difficulties at Kyoto were still prevalent – and still are to some extent today.

By then I was also active in local politics which made me realise how many hurdles stand in the way of environmental pursuits – just try and protect an endangered species without the support of landowners or farmers with business interests to see how hard it is. That said, it was a valuable experience as it brought home to me the importance of combining environmentalism, education and information. If decision-makers have the right information they are much more likely to make better decisions. Without information, wrong decisions will more likely be made. This is something I raise with my students to this day. I tell them to try and secure a new zebra crossing in their own community to see how difficult it can be to generate change. I have been a local councillor in Cambridge for seven years too and I understand that for democratic structures to prevail we must work with the community rather than against it. This might mean slower progress on our environmental objectives but it’s critical to secure long-term success. I believe that at the local level we need to think globally, but we need to bring the community along.

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

I teach International and EU Environmental Law at the Law Faculty and my research brings focus to the interaction between environmental and economic law. At the European Union level, I specialise in constitutional questions and federalism, and at the international level I specialise in international trade law and their respective interactions with sustainable development. A recent project maps EU and Latin America trade agreements against the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that are at the heart of the Paris Agreement. I think the NDCs are under studied and the EU needs to take these unilateral commitments much more seriously to help partner countries reach net zero and ensure they are not diverting from their objectives to meet this target.

We have been researching NDCs and discovered that out of 160 NDCs published by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 153 contain legislative changes to transition to a low carbon economy. There are a number of legislative approaches to this process, and in this respect the UK has been a trailblazer for innovative climate legislation. The ways in which countries transition to a low carbon green economy and keep the commitments to net zero under the Paris Agreement interest me. As Director of the Centre for European Legal Studies at Cambridge I currently see much more research focus on climate change and the EU Green Deal than ever before as well as interesting new discussions on competition law, energy law and even access to medicines in the EU where green and climate change aspects are part of the debate.

I see myself as a sustainable development lawyer and am active in the charity the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law (CISDL) because I am constantly looking at social and economic dimensions as well as environmental objectives. Some colleagues tell me that it is only possible to be either an environmental or economic lawyer, but I disagree. Lawyers need to be both because balancing environmental climate change objectives and economic and social imperatives is a constant. We must all be aware of the real-world cost of our decision making. A sustainable development approach is required and that means not prioritising the environment and climate change at the expense of everything else.

Working with businesses that are not carbon neutral or sustainable also attracts criticism but from my perspective it is exactly the right approach. These are the organisations and decision makers we need to convince to change. I am very comfortable among the environmental community, but that is not where I can generate the change that is needed for this world. To make meaningful change I need to talk to the trade lawyers, the business lawyers and the tax lawyers which can be difficult because many don’t share my conviction that climate change is an existential threat to humanity. We need to find new ways of convincing people to be able to generate that momentum towards change. Law and politics are important, because decisions made at the national or international level often affect the poorest most directly.

Recently, when the candidates for prime minister pledged to lower the cost of living by drilling for more oil and gas in the UK, what they were actually saying is they don’t care about the millions who are suffering from flooding and from droughts in developing countries – the people at the coalface of climate change today. In my view, there is a direct trade-off between the wellbeing of your own local community and what Paul Collier termed the ‘bottom billion’ – those who don’t have the resources to combat climate change, who are not responsible for climate change to the degree that the developed world is. This creates a global justice crisis. If we don’t get ahead on climate change and do it very soon, we will exacerbate existential problems in the rest of the world. Future wars could be fought over natural resources and climate change issues, and that scares me – not necessarily for my life, but for the life of future generations. We don’t have the luxury to wait for another two decades to trigger the change needed and that’s where the law comes in. It plays a pivotal role in setting the direction for future actions and that’s where legal change is important – it sets us on a trajectory and creates path-dependency.

Why is law for climate change so important?

Law for climate action is really important because the world has promised since 1992, in the UN Framework Convention, that we’re going to address climate change in a meaningful way. And we need to do that at all levels in all legal fields. It becomes a very cross cutting issue where the Climate Change Act just provides one particular frame. But we need to change the law in many areas that are related to any form of economic pursuit that might result in either use of electricity or direct emissions. And only if we make those changes and make them fast, can we really expect that the national economies of the world reach net zero at the timescale that the scientists tell us to.

There are currently a number of high profile climate litigation cases trying to advance certain aspects of reducing greenhouse gases which are shedding light on particular carbon-intensive business practices. But, in my view, that is just the tip of the iceberg – we need change at every level and we need to facilitate that worldwide. Climate change is a diverse and difficult problem, but addressing the legal mandate at every level, and at every institutional level, would get us to net zero much quicker than we think. 

I pursued graduate studies at Yale in the US where the then dean Gus Speth, a former environmental advisor to Jimmy Carter, would often voice his frustration at the world. He recalled a 300-page memo about climate change being prepared for the President in 1978. The science was relatively clear in the 1970s, the international community got their act together in 1992 but we are only now seeing the first reductions. That’s 50 years wasted, despite the science being clear. It’s frustrating, but this diverse challenge also includes the economy, society and legislative change at every level, which all take time.

That is why I’m interested in training tax, corporate and contract lawyers because we need to integrate climate across the board so that all lawyers are knowledgeable about the interface between law and science and are equipped to actively advise clients on how to address climate challenges. We need lawyers to help develop a level of expertise to speak the language of science and the language of climate change in their daily legal practice.

Which climate issue keeps you awake at night?

I worry that environmental consciousness goes numb because of the number of environmental catastrophes that we’re seeing around the world. The wildfires in California, which barely make headlines here, and the floods in Pakistan are not normal occurrences to be ignored. Sea levels will rise and island states will flood and disappear. The danger is dismissing disasters as just another typhoon or another hurricane. But these events are coming much faster and much quicker than even the most pessimistic climate scientist thought.

The late Konrad von Moltke, who created a network of environmental policy institutes across Europe, spoke of the planet hitting back, telling us what is going on. Humans are a tiny unit on the planet and if we do wrong the planet will tell us. I believe the planet is telling us.

How do you maintain your motivation and what positive climate-related stories or developments have you seen in your career?

My glass is always half full and I rejoice in small successes. It is undeniable that tremendous progress resulted in the Paris Agreement, which has a lot of traction and provides us with international tools that can be implemented at the European and national level to get to net zero. If we hit net zero by 2050, I think we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Life will still be slightly less comfortable than it is today, but in some ways, it will also be more comfortable. Air pollution from road traffic will hopefully be a thing of the past. Amazing structures can be built completely from renewable materials to have negative carbon – which is where we need to be. The new EU-New Zealand trade agreement that acknowledges climate change as an essential element of a treaty agreement was passed earlier this year – I never thought I would see that in my lifetime yet here it is. The quality of the trading relationship has been changed for the climate and not against it.

We need to give everyone the information they need to do the right thing. That starts with individual consumers but goes all the way to national politicians and parliamentarians. I think the Paris Agreement in 2015 was a huge success and, while the implementation is difficult, it is not going to go away as a legal framework – and that makes me hopeful and stay motivated.

Contact: Dr Markus Gehring, Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for European Legal Studies, University of Cambridge