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Desi lawyers warm to climate change fight: Shardul Amarchand, NUJS roll out starter green deals, KCo Cal does solar

A well-oiled justice system & climate? Not incompatible
A well-oiled justice system & climate? Not incompatible

As some of the world (including lots of youngsters) have been protesting for action against global heating for the past week, we have taken a look at whether India’s legal profession and law schools have done much (and if they can do better).

Sure, a law firm, law school or court is unlikely to have the carbon footprint of an Amazon (the online retail giant was one of several global companies that last week pledged to be carbon neutral in the next decades, faced with impending mass employee strikes: its shipping business alone belched out 19.1 million tons of CO2 in 2017).

Collections of lawyers are also unlikely to have the technical nous of an Amazon, which has deputed “200 scientists, engineers and product designers” find technological solutions (while presumably maintaining profitability).

Nevertheless, thousands of lawyers work in Indian law firms and arctic-level air-conditioned offices, and probably produce more waste than the average white collar desk job; many more lakhs spend much of their day in courts, chambers or law schools around the country.

Hot (and old) global trend

Internationally, law firms have long caught on that being green may not just be useful in helping save the planet, but also in attracting (perhaps more vocal) millennials to their workforce, saving money and not losing (and even winning) corporate clients who may have requirements to work with vendors who keep watch over their carbon outputs.

When trying to make a start in saving carbon, it helps to also first measure the current output so that you know what you’re achieving: at least 59 law firms internationally had measured their carbon outputs in 2018, of which the most committed 28 firms, on average, reduced their emissions by 56%.

That is according to figures by the UK-based Legal Sustainability Alliance (LSA), which was started in 2007 by a number of international firms.

Joining is free and requires pledging to the LSA’s principles to reduce and measure carbon footprints (which could presumably involve some costs from environmental consultancies).

However, while firms from all over the world are mentioned on the LSA as members website, it does not appear to have any Indian law firm members.

“Indian law firms are way behind,” comments one domestic law firm lawyer with interest in the area, but who declined to be named. “They are still struggling with shredding old court files and not using plastic in office.”

“I doubt any law firm is even thinking on those lines seriously,” he adds. “Long way to go for them.”

Lukewarmer

But change is afoot. Though still behind international efforts, at least some of the bigger Indian law firms seem to have at last turned their minds to the environment a little bit: several out 10 major firms we spoke to have been trying to reduce plastic waste, for instance, or are applying their minds at least a little.

Khaitan & Co has installed solar panels in its Kolkata office, which generate up to 13kW of power to cover part of its electricity use. It helps that the firm is the only occupant of its Cal office, whereas most law firms are one of several tenants in larger office.

“It may not be an option in most leased buildings,” said one senior law firm partner, and adds: “Given the asset light model followed by firms, the initial capex [capital expenditure] for solar panels may be an issue.”

The one that’s appears to have pushed this harder than others so far from our sample, may be Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas. It has recently launched an environmental sustainability initiative, which stops short of pledging complete carbon neutrality, but has deputed 67 of its staff and lawyers to act as environmental champions in the firm (see more details below).

Amongst universities, NUJS Kolkata has started a green campus plan.

And even the bench has got in on the act (cautiously), with the Calcutta high court having announced it would go single-use plastic free.

Every little can help

We asked Oxford University professor Lavanya Rajamani, who specialises in climate change law and recently moved to the UK, about what else businesses such as law firms can do to reduce their carbon footprint.

“Travel less, virtual conferences; conduct energy efficiency audits for buildings; better design for ventilation etc so [the] AC [is not running] all the time,” she says. “Even single use plastic is a huge issue with water bottles.”

Along these lines, Khaitan HR director Amar Sinhji explains that the firm is doing similar things to what “others are doing”, such as “not using plastic / single use water bottles”, “presence sensitive LED lighting”, and “using technology to substitute travel”.

Trilegal co-founding partner Rahul Matthan notes that the firm has taken “some” steps to reduce its environmental impact, but it was also “working on a more comprehensive and long term strategy”.

One managing partner says that although his firm doesn’t have formal efforts along that front, perhaps it would now “make a conscious programme”.

Plus, he adds: “For most of my meetings in central Delhi and almost daily commute from home to office and courts I use the Metro.”

Finally, Rajamani also notes, perhaps stating the obvious, that lawyers “use crazy amounts of paper”, so printing less, and on both sides” was an option.

67 SAMeco friends

When we asked Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas, the firm shared more details of its roll-out of a more strategic attempt at reducing its footprint.

At the core of its efforts are 67 individuals across offices dubbed “SAMeco Friends”, who will try and take ownership of the firm’s initiatives and “encourage people across the firm to contribute”.

SAM’s current plans include the following:

  • recycling water with “aerators” fitted in taps to reduce water consumption by 20%,
  • rain water harvesting (used for office plants),
  • eco-friendly chemicals for cleaning, air freshening and trying to identify non-plastic-based products and services.

There are also a variety of paper, waste- and energy saving measures, such as:

  • using recycled paper for note-taking pads and double-sided paper use on printers and photocopiers,
  • minimising printing by buying larger computer monitors to make reading documents on screen easier (though buying new monitors doesn’t come without a carbon footprint either),
  • having a software prompt pop up when printing to double check whether people really want to print,
  • getting print toner cartridges recycled by the manufacturer,
  • automatic light sensors, improving energy efficiency in the office, reducing computer screen power saving time-outs and upgrading IT storage systems to improve energy efficiency.

There are a number of other efforts in the future pipeline at SAM as well, such as:

  • gifting potted plants instead of flower bouquets to members of the firm on birthdays or special occasions,
  • putting more indoor plants in the office, and
  • installing hand dryers instead of tissue paper in the toilets (which is a surprisingly complex issue for a certain industry, but with clear energy savings).

University space

Out of a few law schools student councils we’ve asked about campus initiatives on this front, we found out that NUJS Kolkata has on 16 September 2019 launched its “green campus” plan.

This takes several measures to reduce its environmental impact (see full PDF here), such as:

  • during events, using only eco-friendly materials; folders to be made of materials such as jute, cardboard or cloth instead of plastics; not buying packaged mineral water; using “e-banners” instead of printing banners for events; and banning single-use plastic and paper cups and glasses,
  • across campus, banning the use of single-use plastics, such as water bottles and polythene bags,
  • reducing electricity by making it an explicit “mandatory duty of each floor attendant and staff/student body to switch off all” electric light switches when not in use (though this may be a bit difficult to police),
  • aiming to reduce paper waste in projects and study materials (though it makes allowance that some teachers may “prefer hardcopy of projects”), and recycling of “spiral bound Bar Acts” every year during exams.

Reducing rocket science?

Of course, most of these initiatives and measures are not rocket science.

They also won’t make a firm, law school or profession carbon neutral by themselves.

But when talking about environmental gains (and especially reductions), many of those will be incremental and achieved by a series of smaller, simpler steps that anyone can get involved in.

That said, even eking out small wins is not easy and require application of mind to and enthusiasm about the issues, which seems to have been gradually growing in the Indian legal profession.

If your law firm, campus or legal sector organisation is also taking initiatives or you have novel ideas how the Indian profession can be more environmental, please share these in the comments, we’d love to hear more.

And for those interested in ideas, the Legal Sustainability Alliance has a page with some “quick win” suggestions to get started with.

Photo by Lorie Shaull

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