THE EARTH IS MY CLIENT. James Thornton is the founding CEO of ClientEarth, an environmental charity using the law to create powerful change that protects life on Earth. James launched ClientEarth in 2007, sparking fundamental change in the way environmental protections are made and enforced across Europe. ClientEarth are funded by various streams and sources including trusts, foundations, individual donors and digital fundraising. Now operating globally, ClientEarth uses advocacy, litigation and research to address the greatest challenges of our time – including nature loss and climate change.
Youcan listen to the podcast of this interview here.
James Thornton, why did you become a lawyer specializing in the environment and climate change?
Growing up in New York I fell in love with the natural world. I come from a family of lawyers and I know the law is very powerful, but I couldn’t even take an environmental law course because this was all so new. I was able ultimately to devote myself to this when I came to the UK from the United States around 20 years ago and found that there were lots of very good environmental organizations in Europe doing campaigning and policy work, but they weren’t using law. If you really want to change how society operates, you have to change the rules of the game, which are the laws.
Can you give me an example?
The first big case and victory was an air quality case in the UK. I picked clean air because at that point the European Union was saying 400000 people a year die early of air pollution every year in the EU, and diesel pollution was really the reason. A good European law was in place and gave numerical standards and said that for fine particles and for nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas, numbers have to be only at this level. It gave a deadline for countries to bring the air into compliance. All across the EU, all the big cities were out of compliance.
What did you do?
I wrote a polite letter to the UK government saying that this is late 2009 and by 2010 you need to comply with these European standards and you’re not in compliance. You know that 40000 people in the UK are dying early of air pollution every year, because that’s your own numbers. You know you’re not in compliance because you do the monitoring that shows that. Therefore, you must have a plan. Please share the plan with us or we’ll need to sue you.
“Countries and companies are not going fast enough. The law allows you leverage to move them further ahead faster.”
James Thornton, what was their plan?
The government wrote back saying, you’re right, but we have no intention of complying with the law until at least 2025. 15 years later! So we sued. We lost in the trial court and the court of appeals so we went to the Supreme Court, where the government said, “We agree with ClientEarth. We’re not complying. We have no intention of complying until 15 years from now, and you, the Supreme Court, may not order us to comply.” Suddenly the British government had made it a case about democracy. It was a real governmental power argument.
We said to the Supreme Court, “If you accept this argument, then the government can choose what laws to comply with or not, whenever it wants to. It’s no longer democracy under the rule of law.” The Supreme Court gave us the first environmental injunction that it had ever given. It ordered the government to comply with the law.
Therefore you succeeded?
Yes, although we’ve had to keep fighting. This was before Brexit and we also got the European judgement and immediately went to Germany. A lot of air pollution in Western Europe is the dirty exhaust of diesel cars, so we went to the home of the German motor industry in Stuttgart, Dusseldorf, Munich, and with German partners we sued those governments, because they were also not in compliance. We also won there. The courts said, “If you don’t come up with plans to come into compliance soon, we’re going to ban diesel vehicles.”
This is happening in the West, but what about China for example, which is famous for being very polluted. Have they understood about the environment and clean air?
The very good story about China waking up on the environment often doesn’t get told in the West. We now have an office of 15 people in Beijing and I’ve been working there since 2007 when I was invited to give a seminar to members of the Supreme Court and senior environmental officials about how to write a law that would let Chinese citizens sue polluting companies, including those owned by the state. They said, “Our air is polluted, our water is polluted, our food is polluted. The soil is polluted. The citizens are very, very angry about this. China was here 2500 years ago. Our job is to fix things so that there can be healthy people and a good economy 2500 years from now. The only way we can do it is to change the law and enforce the law and build the rule of law for the environment.” They said, “This was a mistake, all this pollution. Over the last 40 years, we raised hundreds of millions of people up from poverty, and we’re proud of that, but we had policies that destroyed the environment when we did it, and that was simply ignorant. Now we need to change, even if it means less growth in GDP.”
What are they doing?
A lot. They did have good laws about water and air pollution that were modelled on Western laws, but they were being ignored. They made 3000 special judges to hear environmental cases, and we started training the judges. Then the prosecutors came to us and said, “We need to bring cases to clean up the environment. Will you train us, including will you train us to sue the government when it’s not doing its job?” Imagine that! The Chinese federal prosecutors asking a western NGO to train them to sue China’s government! That was the most surprising question I’ve ever been asked in my life.
What are the results?
Last year we got a letter hand-delivered from the prosecutors in Beijing which said, “Thank you for all of the work with us. Thank you for all of the training that you’ve given us. ClientEarth have brought the concept of environmental prosecution in the interest of the public to China. In 2020 we initiated 80000 cases.” The majority of them were against government entities, and of course they sue companies as well. It is now 100000 cases in total, so very quickly all the companies in China and the government departments realise that they have to clamp down on pollution.
Are other highly populated countries like India, Indonesia, and Brazil also doing so?
Not yet. Not nearly as much as needs to happen. The Chinese are really awake to this. They understand that it’s in their own self-interest.
“The Chinese are really awake to this. They understand that it’s in their own self-interest.”
James Thornton, why don’t other countries understand this?
I don’t know. We saw this in the West. It took years for governments to understand that it was actually in their interest, and in their economic interest, to take care of the environment. In India, Modi is putting tremendous emphasis on growth, and they need to improve the lives of the people, but he’s building a lot more coal fired power stations than he needs to. That is going to give them and the whole world increasing problems. The understanding that it’s in our own interest to do something hasn’t taken hold.
What effective work is now being done in the United States and in Europe?
Europe is moving, but no country is moving fast enough. In the United States Trump tried to roll back a great many of the environmental laws. He was not as successful as he wanted to be, but he did a lot of damage that has already been improved by the Biden administration. In the US the extreme right wing have made being against the environment and being against doing anything about climate change one of their ideological positions. Hopefully they can wake up, and see that their grandchildren will not have a good life if they go the direction they’re going. This shouldn’t be allied to a political party. Ultimately, it’s about saving civilisation.
What happens in the rest of the world?
One other thing to say about China is their Belt and Road Initiative, an enormous project that involves something like 100 countries. It was planned to build a lot of new coal fired power stations – in Asia in general, and Southeast Asia in particular, 350 million people don’t have electricity. The old fashioned way to get it to them was to build coal, and that’s what China was proposing, but we made the argument – along with others – that this was a bad idea for the environment, and also simply a bad business decision. They listened, and President Xi announced that they would build no more coal plants outside China or finance them. That was the equivalent of stopping 190 new coal-fired power stations.
Why was it a bad business decision?
One of the things on our side now is that the economics of energy have changed dramatically in the last 10 years. It’s more economical to build renewable energy in most places in the world than to build fossil fuel energy. We’ve won a court case in Europe about this, where we brought a case as shareholders against a company in Poland that was trying to build a coal plant. It was a pure corporate law case. We won by saying that this investment in coal was bad business and the directors were violating their duty to us.
Major energy companies are investing a lot in hydrogen or in eolic or in solar. Are there still powerful lobbies against this?
There are big industrial interests, coal producers and also the utility companies, trying to protect coal. RWE in Germany want to keep burning coal for as long as they can. It’s an inertia in the system, incumbent industries who want to just keep doing what they’re doing. In Italy the big Federico II coal plant in Brindisi is shutting down and the idea is to put gas in place of the coal, but very good analysts have shown that this would be a bad investment for Italy, it would be cheaper to put in clean energy. The next issue will be to not have the whole world immediately signing up to an increase in gas, but to move from coal smoothly to renewable energy.
Is there a return of the idea that at the end of the day nuclear is safe?
Environmentalists, particularly in Europe, have always opposed nuclear energy very strongly. Now even they are beginning to say nuclear could be part of the mix. It’s a way of getting electricity that you can rely on 24 hours a day, no matter what happens with the wind.
How far can the law go in reducing climate change and protecting nature?
One of the main things to do is to protect the three big rainforests that are left. There’s Southeast Asia, there’s the Congo Basin in Africa, and then there’s the Amazon in Brazil, and for both climate change and for nature protection you need laws in place. Then you have to be prepared to enforce the laws, because it’s always easier to not do it, and therefore you need to get people demanding that it be done.
A pile of logs
A family play on a beach with wind turbines in the background
A man surveys a glacial lake
A woman wading in a flood
“One of the main things to do is to protect the three big rainforests that are left.”
James Thornton, is it a contradiction that on one side science is improving and on the other side we have to go back to traditional agriculture to protect nature?
The way I think about it is that the Earth is my client, and so are you, because you live on the Earth. I interview my client by listening to what the science is saying. The policy then needs to follow the science. In the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which was just being rewritten, we and others were arguing for a tremendous reduction of chemicals, but the countries, particularly France, weren’t willing to go as far as necessary. So the law we got is not as strong as necessary, and the fight continues, and will continue.
How do we make the right arguments to improve the rules of the game?
One of the exciting things that you get from a lot of contemporary science is the deeper understanding of what nature actually requires. My chairman of ClientEarth is also the chair of the Alan Turing Institute. I’m encouraged that artificial intelligence will allow us to solve, as it did with the Covid vaccines, the environmental technology problems faster than we could otherwise do it. There are billions being invested in meat grown in laboratories. It’s not commercial yet, but it will be soon.
Why are you interested in that?
Because people overall are not going to immediately become vegetarians. If they did, you could protect the rainforest in Brazil because 80 percent of the rainforest in Brazil that’s cut down is cut down to produce beef and soybeans for beef. If you can produce a pharmaceutical grade beef in laboratories and do it at a price that is competitive, then suddenly you don’t need to cut down the Amazon to produce beef at all. Science has recently established that the forest regenerates all by itself in 20 years. This is a marvellous example of how high technology can lead to solving one of our biggest environmental problems.
The big challenge is to keep on maintaining and upgrading the human condition and at the same time not destroying the planet. How do we find this compromise?
I don’t see it as a compromise. You can either supply electricity to 350 million people by building coal and destroying the planet, or you can build renewable energy systems which will give them electricity and allow improvement in their lives and not destroy the planet. If you move agriculture globally away from an overreliance on toxic chemicals you can produce as much food, and it will be higher grade food, and you won’t be destroying the soil, you won’t be destroying the water. If we do things in the right way and use the new technologies that are there and think about it in the right way – then you can produce a much better life for everybody who needs to have an increase in lifestyle, and you can produce a cleaner and healthier life for all of us who already enjoy an extravagant life. It’s not a compromise. To me it’s the only solution.
Can we save civilisation by finding a way to act that supports the global ecosystem and supports economic justice among people?
We can, and it really is a matter of people and politicians understanding that we can do it, and politicians and companies saying that they will do it. Countries and companies are not going fast enough. The law allows you leverage to move them further ahead faster. What I do adds extra power to what the activists do. If there were 10 million campaigners in Europe that would be great and young people are essentially becoming campaigners. CEOs of companies go home for dinner and their daughter says, “Dad, why are you doing that?”
Are young people very powerful in this?
I deeply understand their frustration. In a global poll something like 70 percent said that they had anxiety about climate change. 40 percent said their anxiety was so high that it sometimes interfered with their daily functions and daily activities. It’s very important for us who are older to really listen today to the anxiety of these young people, and encourage them to consider that there are ways that we can actually get all of this done. Because if you believe that there is something you can do, it is the best way to address this anxiety. That something to do can be to protest. It can be to tell your father to clean up his company. It can be to insist that your school teach you the right things about the environment. It can be to write letters to the parliament. As a young person you can do all of those things, and ultimately you can become an environmental lawyer or a politician, or you can be the green person in a company, and companies are going to need a lot more of those. You can do something today which helps address the anxiety, and then you can set yourself on a path.
Thank you very much for your time.
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