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Steve Gummer

Partner and Head of Net Zero, Sharpe Pritchard LLP

Nadia Biles Davies

Chief Operating Officer, Sharpe Pritchard LLP

Quotation Marks
Aside from statutory responsibilities under the government’s Net Zero 2050 plan, Net Zero will become a commonplace expectation among clients

Reducing national carbon emissions is in the legal sector’s power

Reducing national carbon emissions is in the legal sector’s power

By and

Steve Gummer and Nadia Biles Davies share details of the work being carried out at Sharpe Pritchard to encourage sustainability in the legal sector

Is the legal sector a major polluter? The evidence suggests that it has been, but the landscape is changing. The Legal Sustainability Allowance (LSA) reported, at last count, that its roughly 130 member firms were responsible for a total of 191,836 tCO2e – equating to around 19 tCO2e per partner or 3.24 tCO2e per employee. At the most recent count in 2022, the Top 50 law firms were responsible for 39,532 tCO2e.

Superficially, this does not sound like good news. However, the same LSA report showed a combined reduction in the carbon footprint of 56% since 2008, and an 11% reduction from just the previous year. LSA membership is voluntary and typically the reserve of environment, social and governance (ESG)-focused firms with existing green policies, so there may be some sustainability bias here, but these figures are indicative of the important and innovative work going on in the most sustainable firms in the UK.

Despite discontinuing free carbon reporting for its members in 2018, the LSA continues to identify trends towards carbon neutrality and reduction in the legal sector. Ultimately, this is the path the sector needs to take if it is to keep up with client expectations and the government’s 2050 Net Zero target.

Our approach – an overview

At Sharpe Pritchard, we recognise that an effective environmental and sustainability strategy is essential to our future success, as well as that of our clients and wider society. Embracing Net Zero is not just an ethical choice. It is meaningful to our clients and speaks to the values of our people at Sharpe Pritchard and helps attract and retain talent.

Considering the average emission per employee in the legal sector is 3.24 tCO2e per year, we have achieved a carbon footprint of just 0.2 tCO2e per year per employee, thanks in part to a 13% reduction on the previous year. Helping us achieve a remarkably low total carbon footprint of 15.4 tCO2e annually as a firm. We take the approach that sustainability and low-carbon operations are not achieved through a single policy, but rather by incorporating our efforts into our everyday activities, decision-making and continuous review processes.

Our success in reducing our carbon footprint is a direct result of a number of internal initiatives, examples include:

  • Actively reducing printing (with monthly monitoring) and planting a tree for every tree’s worth of printing carried out through PrintReleaf;
  • Using recycled and bleach-free paper;
  • Recycling everything possible with dedicated recycling points across our offices;
  • Powering down equipment when not in use;
  • Banning single-use plastics;
  • Providing a cycle to work scheme and an electric vehicle scheme;
  • Donating usable office equipment to reduce landfill;
  • Conducting annual supply chain audits to ensure our suppliers work sustainably;
  • Receiving all office supplies by electric delivery vehicles;
  • Collaborating with landlords to identify opportunities to cut energy usage; and
  • Appointing a taxi and courier supplier with a mix of zero and ultra-low emission vehicles.

As an organisation, we have also eliminated scope one and two emissions, thanks to using 100% renewable energy guarantees of origin (REGO)-backed electricity.

In 2023, we submitted a letter of commitment to the Science Based Target Initiative (SBTI) and are registered as Near Term Committed and Net Zero Committed. We have instructed Green Element to partner with us this year to set our Near Term and Net Zero targets within this financial year. We believe in both passive and active support for ESG objectives, with our firm acting as both a leader and a guide for relevant activity.

So, what does this mean for the sector as a whole? Is reducing your practice’s carbon footprint as simple as introducing new operational measures? Operation efficiencies are only part of it. There is a limit to what can be achieved through the introduction of sustainable measures.

Collaboration is key

As an organisation, we are now focused on reducing our scope three emissions. We recognise these emissions, which include emissions from activities across the supply chain, represent a significant portion of any law firm’s carbon footprint. While we have already taken significant steps to reduce these emissions, achieving true Net Zero status requires deeper collaboration with our suppliers and peers in the legal sector.

To help raise awareness of the practicalities, we’re hosting a ‘Net Zero Now’ forum on Wednesday 11 September 2024. The event will bring together suppliers, business owners and those in senior leadership roles, to discuss the necessity of embracing Net Zero, the practicalities of achieving it and strategies for reducing scope one, two and three emissions.

By sharing practical insights and initiatives from industry experts and organisations already undertaking the sustainability journey, we hope to raise awareness of this critical issue, fostering a collective approach to sustainability and ensuring that all participants can implement effective measures to reduce their carbon footprints and work more sustainably.
Through such collaborative efforts, we can help address the challenges of scope three emissions and move closer to our goal of a truly Net Zero legal sector.

Environmental advocacy

On the other side of the green coin is our approach to environmental advocacy. In 2022, we launched our ‘Green Goals’ campaign, to help support clients achieve their green commitments in their business-as-usual work, as well as with new, leading green projects.

Whether in the private or public sector, our team helps clients deliver projects by looking at the ‘how’ (can it be done?) but also the ‘what’ (can and should it be done?), weaving environmental and sustainability expectations throughout our advice. A key focus and commitment for us is to support our public sector clients in the critical role that they play in addressing the climate change crisis at both the national and local level.

Once again, this is not something that can be done via a single avenue, but rather something which we have achieved through initiatives including:

  • Offering pro bono legal advice each quarter to local authorities on green projects at the feasibility stage;
  • Advising on retrofitting, the single biggest environmental challenge facing the UK’s Net Zero goals;
  • Targeting central government and local authorities with our sustainable advisory efforts; and
  • Addressing the need for a comprehensive and joined-up Net Zero strategy.

Doing so has allowed us to achieve our own commercial goals as a specialist public law firm.

Succeeding with Green Goals

Our Green News series is part of a wider recognition that digital communication will help the sector achieve Net Zero and carbon reduction in the months and years to come. This means embracing digital content, such as social media campaigns and thought leadership, as a way of demystifying the relative complexities of sustainability law.

In his series of blogs, Bitesize PPAs, Steve Gummer delivers critical but digestible information for local authorities on the different types of power purchase agreements available when generating or procuring electricity. He has done the same for Heat Network Technical Assurance Schemes, due for launch in 2025 in line with the Energy Act 2023, replacing the existing Heat Network (metering and billing) Regulations.

Currently focusing on solar photovoltaic projects and wind energy, we’ll be taking the time to review government policies, encouraging sustainable practices and requirements in public projects and public–private partnerships (PPPs), and demonstrating that green doesn’t have to be difficult.

To this end, we have also launched our Green Steves series, which – aside from the catchy name – provides advice and environmental consultancy for public bodies around these issues.

So how has this helped? We have spoken a lot about reducing carbon footprints in the legal sector through client advisory, but has this had an impact on projects of national or regional importance?

Taking ESG on the road

We have applied our expertise to a number of major projects – and learned a lot in the process! These have recently included acting as legal advisers on the MerseyTravel hydrogen bus project, achieving the successful introduction of a 20-strong fleet in May 2023. Not only are the new buses Net Zero on carbon emissions, but they are also leading the charge in terms of accessibility and providing up-to-date departure information. This has demonstrated to us the importance of not only sustainable purchasing and construction, but of applying that to accessibility and the other practical needs of end users.

Elsewhere, our approach to green goals has also been implemented in some of the most innovative, sustainable and complex waste management projects, in an industry that has reduced its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 64% since 1990. These projects include a number of PPPs and private finance initiatives (PFIs).

We also acted as the joint authors of Defra’s Waste Infrastructure Delivery Programme’s Residual Waste Treatment Contract, ensuring that residual waste is dealt with in a sustainable and safe manner and advising on projects specifically targeting energy efficiency and carbon reduction, including advising the City of London on the Citigen district heating scheme.

The City of London project successfully delivered low-carbon, low-cost energy to one of the UK’s centres of business and commerce, with over 8,000 residents and 480,000 daily commuters – made possible by expert legal advice, preventing delays and challenges to the project.

These projects have revealed that there is always another way of approaching a piece of work within the bounds of legislation, which incorporates a more sustainable way of working. Looking to the future, Net Zero will need to be the legal sector’s ultimate goal. Aside from statutory responsibilities under the government’s Net Zero 2050 plan, Net Zero will become a commonplace expectation among clients, and those firms that do not embrace it, face being left out in the cold.

Thinking about our own practice, this will be achieved with the help of our Climate Emergency Task Force, an internal team dedicated to helping reduce our carbon footprint, alongside our Carbon Reduction Plan. Our dedication to staff engagement and education ensures that sustainability is woven into the fabric of our firm’s culture. Empowering every member of the team to play a role in advancing environmental protection is our shared responsibility across the legal sector and beyond.

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