Climate change, COP26 and Environmentalism in Law

Felicity Checksfield

What is COP26 and why is it important?

A series of serious, adverse effects have forced global warming to the forefront of policy makers considerations; these include rising sea levels, increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, floods and droughts. One way in which global actors have responded to climate change is through the signing of international treaties. For example, in 1992 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was created; here, 197 parties committed themselves to work towards mitigating the effects of climate change. In 2015, another global promise was made in the form of the Paris Climate Agreement. Here 195 parties agreed to work towards limiting global temperature increase by 1.5 degrees celsius.

However, in order for these instruments to be effective, it is instrumental to make sure countries are following their agreements. The Conference of the Parties (COP) plays a pivotal role in providing such a forum. It is here that parties of the United Nations meet every year to discuss how they can better respond to climate change concerns. This year, the parties shall meet in Glasgow at the twenty-sixth COP.

The framework of COP accordingly represents a trend towards the increased accountability of states for their environmental agreements. Countries are no longer held to merely voluntary standards of climate protection; they are being tied to legally binding and enforceable agreements on emission reductions. In a recent finding, the Hague Court of Appeal broke new ground as the first judiciary to order its own government to strengthen its response to climate change. COP26 accordingly facilitates these discussions of accountability at a global scale and fosters an environment where every state is expected to do everything they can to tackle climate change.

Paris Climate Agreement.2015

How does climate change relate to my studies in law?

During my legal studies, my interaction with climate change has revolved around exploring the viable legal mechanisms that can be used to bring about such accountability. I have particularly focused on the role that human rights law has in articulating the precise duty that a state has to its own citizens. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly common for national courts to infer a duty to protect citizens against climate change through pre-existing human rights obligations. For example, we have seen courts confirm that the right to life, privacy, family life, cultural expression and health are all rights directly implicated by the adverse effects of climate change. In affirming such a connection, the law has been successfully used as mechanism of accountability for climate change agreements.

Opportunities at Durham University to be involved in climate change matters?

As a student studying at Durham, I have been given ample opportunities to explore these matters of climate change. The University’s excellent research facilities and connections have provided a great chance to engage with those working within the field of environmentalism. In the run up to COP26, the Durham Energy Institute has provided a fantastic series of lectures this year, all within the theme of Action on Climate Change. In one of their most recent lectures, we were fortunate enough to hear from Justice Brian Preston about his judgment in the Rocky Hill Mine case. In May, the University took part in an international online Climate Expo; this was an excellent opportunity to showcase the expertise of the University’s teaching in a variety of matters pertaining to climate change. The University is also very eager to involve the student body in these opportunities. This year, myself and some fellow students embarked on the task of setting up the Durham University Environmental Law Society. Aimed at providing a platform for education and debate, the society is open to students of all subject backgrounds. In structuring the society in this way, our goal is to raise awareness of the multi-disciplined approach necessary for an effective climate change mitigation strategy. The University has provided us with invaluable links that have enabled us to launch both an internal university blog competition and an external one, with the surrounding Durham County schools.

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About Environmental Sustainability – Durham University

About the Durham Energy Institute.

About studying Law at Durham.

Felicity Checksfield

I'm a final year law student with a particular interest in environmental and international human rights law. I've been involved in a variety of environmentalism projects; notably the setting up of the Durham University Environmental Law Society and the production of educational material for a climate change schools initiate, that shall be presented at COP26. 

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