Bad COP, Good COP? Oxford law professor Lavanya Rajamani and why climate talks matter

Bad COP, Good COP? Oxford law professor Lavanya Rajamani and why climate talks matter

Since before most of the world’s current leaders were leaders and before climate change had forced its way up the diplomatic agenda, Professor Lavanya Rajamani was actively participating in international environmental conferences. Although still decades younger than many heads of state, Oxford’s professor of International Environmental Law is a veteran of Kyoto, Paris and COP: a negotiator, a drafter, a legal adviser.

She was tipped as an ‘influential’ woman to watch before the ground-breaking 2015 Paris Climate Conference – and has been at the negotiating table since the 2000s, when she was a doctoral student representing a host of small island nations. But, although she arrived at the party much earlier than most, the 40-something Professor can hardly wait for this year’s COP26 in Glasgow. Her enthusiasm for environmental issues is undimmed, since her teenage days picketing KFC in Bangalore – not on grounds of taste but because of concerns over animal welfare.

Six years ago, the Paris conference was a breakthrough point for environmentalists, with world leaders accepting that warming needed to be kept below 2º. This has coalesced around 1.5º, so far so good. But it was left up to individual nations, says Professor Rajamani, to come up with emissions reductions (and net zero) pledges. And words are all very well. Action is needed.

Many have yet to make this translation – while the world waits in anticipation. But, she warns, even if they all come good, it will still not be enough to limit temperature increase to acceptable levels.

So, although no new international treaty is planned for Glasgow, COP26 is not going to be a quiet affair. It offers a chance for the world’s leaders to be held to account for their many and various environmental promises.  Are they delivering what they pledged?  Is that even close to what is necessary anyway? And this year, Professor Rajamani says, will be an opportunity for more equity to be injected into the race for net zero – so developing nations, which may not have fully electrified, will not be held to the same standards as post-industrial nations.

This is an issue close to her heart and negotiators will have to get up very early in the morning to convince the Professor otherwise. Actually they really will have to get up very early, the night before even, because Professor Rajamani admits to rising each day around 3:45am. Full of passion for her work, she says, ‘I get up at 3:45 to 4am. You get a lot of work done in the early morning. I can catch up on my reading and do some writing.

‘I’ve been doing this for eight or nine years. It’s the best time to work; the couple of hours before dawn and before my son gets up.’

Is she a workaholic? A future prime minister (mentioning no names)?

‘I don’t consider myself a workaholic at all – and I have no political ambitions. I’m passionate about what I do, so it’s not hard,’ she laughs, embarrassed.

Not for hard her, perhaps. She adds breezily, ‘I can do three hours of work before anyone gets up. I like to spend the evening with my son, so the early morning has become a bit of a habit. You get a head start on everything.’

She volunteers, ‘If you want something done, ask a busy woman...actually, you should ask a busy woman with young children. We are very well organised, because we have to be.’

And Professor Rajamani certainly is a very busy woman – and very well organised. After dropping her son at school, she does her daily kick boxing exercise. But it is a rare break in the schedule.

On top of her academic work, as a tutor in St Peter’s College and a Professor with Oxford’s law faculty, she is a prolific author (on international environmental law) and consulted by governments and lawyers around the world – most recently about a climate case in Brazil. But she emphasises her passion for the work and is quick to stress the importance of helping ‘shape the narrative’ which is developing in terms of the environment.

‘It is important that we, as scholars, are involved...there has been an uptick in climate litigation...research [from university climate scientists] is moving the debate....academic lawyers can also help move cases forward with rigorous and innovative legal argumentation in cutting-edge cases that will have impact beyond that jurisdiction....much of my work is driven by demand in the field.’

Many of the legal cases, on which she is consulted, involve questions which follow what happened at Paris: where nations were asked to set their own targets and decide if they were doing enough in terms of tackling climate change. The problem is, it is far from clear nations are doing as much as they can and should – which is why the courts have become involved.

Countries are effectively marking their own homework, setting the standards by which their action can be judged – and that has caused an unexpected bonanza for the legal community, with lawyers around the world now embroiled in environmental cases. She explains, national courts are being asked to judge if countries are setting targets that are ambitious enough to address the scale and urgency of the problem, ‘What are the bench marks by which you can tell if a country is doing enough? How do we know if a country is doing enough, when the criteria they use [for calculating and measuring the ambition and fairness of their targets] are different – or are self-serving?’

It has been a very busy time for the leading environmental lawyer, with requests coming from around the globe.  She says, there is need, for clear criteria by which such commitments can be evaluated – and that will not include cost-effectiveness [a regular ‘excuse’] or that a country has a small share of international emissions [not relevant] or that past emissions do not count, known as ‘grandfathering’, [not fair and privileging unfairness].   These are not good reasons for failing to set suitably ambitious targets, she insists, although frequently deployed as defences.

‘Most developed countries are doing far less than they should,’ says Professor Rajamani bluntly. ‘The Paris Agreement envisaged national governments setting their own targets and [unfortunately] this has given rise to litigation [as  courts are asked to decide if countries and regions have set suitably ambitious targets and are on track to achieving their own pledges].’

‘It would be much better to have multilateral agreement on each nation’s fair share, she says. 'But that’s Utopian, given the dysfunctional political context. Litigation is filling the gaps in the regulatory needs to be strategically coordinated across fora and nations to be effective.’

Against this background, Professor Rajamani maintains, ‘COP26 matters because it is a moment of reckoning [when countries will have to admit what they have done or not done].’ She adds, ‘These conferences have played a very decisive role in getting us as far as we have, in the direction of travel.’

And critically, she says, ‘They are the only fora in which all countries are participants [not just the G7 or G20]...This is not just about the major emitters. This should not be a coalition of the powerful...everyone needs to be at the table – which means the COP has a real function to perform...COP will ensure transparency and hold up a mirror to countries.‘

There will also be debates and wrangling about finance and the ‘market’ for emissions. But  Professor Rajamani is keenly interested in the crucial question of targets. She says, whatever has been promised, is not enough, ‘We need to scale up our ambitions, we can’t rely on those left, [who haven’t yet made their commitments public] is going to be challenging to get to net zero....but fairness is an issue – Paris side-stepped this. States were allowed to choose their own targets....Now, this will be more about the wider landscape of ambition.’

Professor Rajamani insists not all countries should be held to the same standard, ‘It is a difficult issue which comes up time and again...We won’t achieve targets without support for developing countries. There has to be fairness around countries – and future generations....It might mean that the US aims for net zero by 2040 and India by 2055 – but they should not both be expected to reach net zero at 2050. That wouldn’t be fair.’

It is a very fast-moving field, which throws up new legal questions and new research all the time. At every conference, and beyond, there are novel challenges and fresh problems. But Professor Rajamani admits, ‘I love what I do. I’ve always been passionate about what I have done.’

She has been a keen environmentalist since she was a child in southern India where, to the bemusement of her family, she announced aged 16 she was going vegetarian. Unlike for many in the sub-Continent, this was not for religious reasons, but because the young Lavanya had helped in an animal shelter and could not face the idea of eating animals she loved.

‘My Christian family was bemused,’ she says. ‘Every celebration involved meat. They couldn’t understand it. My aunt even suggested that I only eat the animals I didn’t like.’

With typical determination, though, she won the day and has been a vegetarian ever since, and is gradually transitioning to veganism. And she set out on a determined journey which would take her across three continents, from law school in India to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar [the first from her university] to Yale as a postgrad, back to Oxford for a doctorate, a teaching stint in Cambridge, and then back to teach in India, before eventually returning to Oxford (via London, Germany, Singapore, Italy and Australia).

‘It’s been like coming home, my second home,’ she says of returning to the city of spires. ‘This is a great place to be doing this. It’s right at the heart of climate science and policy.’

When she is not giving advice to governments, helping draft international treaties and advising litigating lawyers, Professor Rajamani admits, ‘I love teaching and it feels very impactful.’

‘The rest of the work, who knows what impact it has?’ she smiles.

Self-effacing enthusiasm shines through as she talks and Professor Rajamani emphasises, none of this was planned. Her DPhil was in international climate change law, which might seem incredibly propitious. But, it was not like that, she says. And when people ask how they might be an Oxford professor, she says, ‘I didn’t have an ambition to be a Professor at Oxford.

‘That would have been too much. If I’d had defined goals, I would not have done it. I would have been limited by my imagination at the time.’

‘I’ve been driven by passion, not ambition,’ she laughs and she finally admits. ‘I don’t have promote myself.’