Thursday, April 19, 2007

Why I Didn't Become an Environmental Lawyer

I've been passionate about green issues since my early youth, majored in ecology and got a joint law and environmental policy masters degree, and was even co-chair of the Environmental Law Society in law school. Yet, the practice of environmental law (which in practice means environmental litigation or regulatory compliance) has never appealed to me (all I currently do is corporate transactional work).

In my initial assessment, the reason for shunning environmental law was that environmental litigation is tedious, expensive and usually imposes a disproportionate burden on resources to the potential benefits it brings, and such litigation deals with very particularized issues, the resolution of which has little meaningful impact to the greater ecology. As for providing counsel on regulatory compliance? Not unimportant work, but too boring and promotes finding loopholes or merely "doing the minimum" to not get in trouble. As for advocacy in an NGO context? Admirable work and certainly very crucial, but the realities of law school loans means that I would sooner be evicted from my apartment than be able to make any meaningful contributions to the cause.

Attacking the Wrong End of the Pipe
Recently, after reading Hermann Scheer's latest book, Energy Autonomy, I have reached a new understanding of the limits of environmental law. Without dwelling on too much background, the first thing to recognize is that creating a sustainable energy future requires a fundamental reorganization in the way we harvest, deploy and use energy. The centralized, dirty and resource limiting fossil fuel energy structure and mentality of today has to be deconstructed to make way for cleaner, decentralized renewable energy systems. But governments, through environmental laws, focus primarily on the consequences of resource consumption--e.g. how much pollution can a firm emit, and what are the punitive consequences for exceeding such limits. It attacks the problem at the end of the resource chain, instead of catalyzing change at the beginning, i.e. addressing the question of what types of resources we should be using in the first place, and how we ought to use them.

Environmental law is prescriptive rather than preventative. It is retroactive rather than prospective. It attempts to clean messes up, rather than avoid them in the first place. It accepts the current fallacy of a fossil-fuel based economy as legitimate, but attempts helplessly to mitigate its ecological footprint. The most encouraging result of effective environmental laws is eco-efficiency. But what good is efficiency in a growing economy where the aggregate number of emitters are increasing?

The Need for a Paradigm Shift
The assumptions of the fossil-fuel energy structures need to be challenged, and the compelling benefits of renewable energy need to be recognized, articulated and implemented. Environmental law, by design and definition, will not get us there. Eco-efficiency, while a seemingly laudable interim goal, is being manipulated by fossil energy companies as a tool of delay. What is needed are progressive energy laws that (a) strip the fossil fuel industry of its US$250 billion a year of annual subsidies so as to create a level playing field for renewable energy technologies to compete, and (b) renewable energy standards and other incentives to promote the deployment and proliferation of renewable energy on a mass scale with the goal of completely replacing fossil fuel architecture.

The Private Sector as the Drivers of the New Energy Economy
But policies alone are not going to be the primary innovators or commercializers of renewable energy. The government can only do as much as create a favorable economic and political environment for renewable energy deployment and proliferation. Ultimately, it will be renewable energy entrepreneurs, with the aid of far-sighted capital and other service professionals, who will bring renewable energy to the masses. And they will do so not because its the moral thing to do (which it is), but because it is the profitable thing to do.

The writing is on the wall--the greatest economic opportunity in the coming decades will be the clean energy sector (see article by Red Herring on where the best talents of the Silicon Valley are now focusing their energies to) and the champions of the next green wave will be the business sector. Just in the past 48 hours, we have read about the likes of Sharp and Sunpower stepping up their efforts to bring solar power to the masses. What makes the business case for renewable energy so compelling is worth a separate blog post, and post I will, so do stay tuned.


At Sat May 19, 11:05:00 AM GMT-5 , Blogger ems said...

Just found your blog on a random Google search for "environmental law." Your sentiments echo almost exactly what my thought process was after leaving law school (B.S. Zoology from UW-Madison, J.D. from the University of Minnesota). I currently practice in the area of corporate transactions as well, largely because i found the practice of environmental law to be so unrelated to the actual protection of the environment. Good luck as you continue to move forward.

At Tue Oct 02, 10:56:00 AM GMT-5 , Blogger Andrea said...

Julian - I read this particular entry every few months because it resonates across so many fields associated with environment and conservation. It reminds me why I want to drop the contractor badge and join groups that work prospectively.

Hope you're having a great time in Beijing!
- Andy


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