Introduction: Anna Bauböck & Diane Gilhooley
The evening opened with an introduction from Anna Bauböck, editor of The Legal 500’s Global Green Guide, who, reflecting on lawyers’ ever-growing engagement in sustainability, emphasised the importance of coming together and sharing best practice.
The floor was then handed over to Eversheds Sutherland’s ESG co-head Diane Gilhooley, who introduced the audience to the breathless pace of developments in the sustainability space, with pivotal regulatory, policy, and climate-related developments having just occurred in recent days. Gilhooley then provided the audience with a key mission regarding the green transition: amid these contextual changes, corporate strategy – entrenched in business models and stakeholder communication – is a key constant.
Keynote speech: Professor Dr. Wayne Visser
Following the discussion, Professor Dr. Wayne Visser, fellow at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, delivered a speech that delved into the scientific foundations of thriving, drawing insights from his book ‘Thriving’. He underscored the necessity to transition from breakdown to breakthrough, outlining six pivotal transitions essential for achieving thriving across nature, society, and the economy, including the need to move from ecosystem degradation to restoration by embracing an ecoservices economy and shifting from resource depletion to renewal through a circular economy.
He then explored the business case for sustainability, highlighting its potential to unlock market opportunities and create an estimated 28 million jobs by 2050. Concluding his keynote, he outlined five strategic business actions for smart growth. These included the importance of steering clear of greenwashing, prioritising transparency, acknowledging both value creation and destruction, fully embracing circular economy, and actively investing in exponential change and growth.
Panel 1: Global Supply Chains
The first panel of the evening – Global Supply Chains: rising to meet regulations and managing risk – leveraged perspectives from private practitioners, in-house counsel, and regulators to discuss the ever-evolving landscape of supply chain due diligence and reporting.
After an introduction by Eversheds Sutherland’s ESG compliance partner Dominique Strieder detailed the importance of emerging sustainability supply chain obligations to a vast array of businesses, the discussion opened with dialogue on the merits of a more uniform and aligned sustainability reporting culture at a global level. Eversheds Sutherland partner Craig Rogers posed that a level and industry-agnostic regulatory playing field – as is established by the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive – has vast benefits. Looking to the future, Rogers hoped that a common, either multi-national or global, framework will mean internationally oriented law firms can apply a common standard that benefits globalised businesses throughout their operations.
Rebecca Danby, assistant general counsel for Sustainability and ESG at Haleon, agreed that this level of uniformity will be essential for companies to not become overwhelmed by vast rules and regulations. In the supply chain reporting space – as we move from trade-based restrictions to reporting only requirements, to compliance obligations – a greater alignment between global standards will be crucial for the uptake of sustainability principles.
Amid the challenges of meeting obligations, Eversheds Sutherland partner Julia Woodward-Carlton noted how collaboration between companies will be vital, particularly in sharing resources and tracking ESG credentials across global supply chains. Woodward-Carlton identified that while CSDDD acknowledges that companies should collaborate to detect adverse effects and prevent them, companies must self-assess and navigate the competition risk in such collaboration.
To Kari Hietanen, executive vice president Corporate Relations & Legal Affairs at Wärtsilä, the optimal uptake of sustainable business practices requires an active kick-start at the management-level of companies before implementation by legal teams. Hietanen also noted a key tension between the importance of sectoral collaboration regarding supply chains and how sustainability is often the point of competition for innovative, forward-looking companies.
The panel ended with sage advice by Rogers: within business strategies, sustainability has to be a core design feature, not an add-on. As supply chain obligations pose more prescriptive requirements, lawyers must get more granular than ever, work with clients to help achieve deep-level sustainability, and, in doing so, recognise the impact on individuals and communities throughout clients’ supply chains.
Panel 2: Climate Transition Plans
After a brief coffee break, participants were invited to join their selected break-out sessions. The panel on Climate Transition Plans was moderated by Phil Spyropolous, partner at Eversheds Sutherland, with the discussion led by Kirstie Ross, Sustainability Lead at TSB Bank; Andrew Waters, Senior Counsel at Nationwide; and Tom Black, partner at Eversheds Sutherland. Conversations centred around the role of transition plans in driving the transformative change required for achieving net-zero ambitions.
Kirstie Ross set the tone by emphasising the pivotal role of actions and accountability in our journey towards a sustainable future. While highlighting the need for regulation, she underscored that transition plans are not mere compliance exercises but rather essential components of organisations’ agenda. For Ross, a well-crafted transition plan needs to confront targets, acknowledge shortcomings, and prescribe necessary actions.
The discussion then shifted to the regulatory landscape, with the speakers highlighting the utility of transition plans for regulators in assessing the viability of sustainability initiatives. The increasing demand for detailed transition plans places companies under scrutiny, and those lacking clear objectives and metrics risk regulatory enforcement.
A further point of discussion was raised around the question of the feasibility of a meaningful transition amid the current political and economic climate. Here, speakers acknowledged the challenges posed by political instability and economic uncertainty but emphasised the non-negotiable nature of climate transition. While recognising the costs and investments required, it was underscored that the benefits will eventually outweigh the challenges.
Organisations are now urged to ‘win hearts and minds’ across the entire structures, and it is crucial to forge new allies, while also positioning each team within the organisation as change agent.
The panel was concluded by emphasising the delicate balance between ambitious goals and realistic achievements. Caution was advised against falling prey to unfeasible ‘greenwishing’ plans, and organisations were invited to support their green claims with data and well-established transition plans.
As we embark on this still rather new journey towards sustainability and navigate the complex landscape of legal and regulatory requirements, it is important to remember that transparency, consistency, and collaboration are our main allies.
Panel 3 – The Future of Power
In the other breakout session, which concerned the Future of Power, Eversheds Sutherland’s global co-head of energy Stephen Hill led a discussion on trends and outlooks concerning the market and regulation for clean energy technologies.
Chris Dye, vice president and general counsel at point-source carbon capture company Carbon Clean, suggested that, while the frameworks are still being built, there is much positivity regarding the direction and intent of carbon capture regulation. However, there remained a major point of difference between the laborious European regulatory approach and the rapid deployment of investment made possible by the US Inflation Reduction Act.
Relating this experience to the hydrogen sector, Jubilee Easo, energy partner at Eversheds Sutherland, posed that investment will not come without the certainty of an established regulatory framework. By creating certainty throughout the project process and value chain, investment will grow, and the clean power landscape will move away from solely demonstration plants to a widespread green project economy.
The panel discussed how, currently, a key component of clean energy investment and development comes through virtual power purchase agreements. Alex DeSouza, EMEA general counsel at LightsourceBP, identified how, following regulatory uncertainty, supply chain volatility, and interest rate difficulties, there was a slow-down in investment across 2023. Yet DeSouza noted how PPAs are a ‘win-win’ for renewables producers and off-takers. PPAs are proving vital in securing secure, long-term, and competitive finance for projects while meeting corporates’ growing appetite for clean power.
Approaching the market from an energy procurement perspective, Simon Mendham – manager of global utilities at GSK – discussed the importance of additionality in PPAs. Rather than simply purchasing renewable energy credits from decades-old clean energy projects, Mendham emphasised the importance of using PPAs to finance new projects and relayed that this is a best practice which industry associations are pushing. This consideration will be vital as companies look to decarbonise their entire value-chains: companies can use PPAs to decarbonise their own scopes 1 and 2 emissions, before assisting their own suppliers in entering into PPAs to decarbonise their value chains. Not only is this a useful tool to decarbonise scope 3 emissions, but it allows major corporates to ensure that smaller suppliers are not left behind in the green transition.
Following the conclusion of the panels by The Legal 500 Green Guide team, attendees carried on the dialogue, sharing their own best practices, perspectives, and experiences, over a drinks reception.