top of page

Eleonora Arcese on the future of climate action


It’s okay to be optimistic about the potential to address climate change; there are many tools available to us and the law is just one that is proving increasingly effective.

About the Interview

In late November, PRISM’s George Coe and Johan Gott spoke with Eleonora (Elly) Arcese, Head of Grants at ClientEarth, a global non-profit organization that uses the law to protect the environment and combat climate change. The conversation covered a broad range of topics relating to climate change, protecting the environment, the organization’s role in supporting the development of legal capacities within governments, and the interplay between existing law, advocacy, and change.

Key Takeaways

  • Ambitious government commitments on climate change suggest a more positive outlook, potentially avoiding worst outcomes.

  • COP26 underrated; global commitments grow, but implementation remains crucial.

  • Law as a powerful tool; litigation and accountability to ensure climate commitments are met.

  • Economy and financial systems play an important role in climate action acceleration.

  • Individual actions matter; collective impact and vigilance against greenwashing by large corporations.

The Interview

The transcript below has been edited for clarity and style.

PRISM: Nice to see you again, Elly. Let’s just jump into it. Can you tell us about your work and organization, ClientEarth?

Elly Arcese: Well, first, thank you for having me. I'm Head of Grants at ClientEarth, an environmental law charity focused on combating climate change. We were the first of this kind to be set up in Europe around 15 years ago. We are based in the UK, and have teams in Brussels, Berlin, Warsaw, and Madrid, as well as China and the US. In total, we have more than 250 staff, most of whom are lawyers or legal experts from all over the world who specialize in a wide range of topics from greenwashing to climate justice, to ending the use of coal, and much more.

The vision of the organization is to have a healthy planet, where nature and people can thrive together. So, we tackle climate change by using the power of the law, and we want to bring about systemic, lasting change. Some of the things that we do to make this happen are, for example, using our legal expertise to advise and advocate for better laws to protect the environment. We also file regulatory complaints against those who do not protect the planet. In China, for example, we train judges and prosecutors to better use the power of the law to protect the environment. Everything we do with our partners in different geographies aims to help us achieve our goals as an organization.

From a personal standpoint, as ClientEarth’s Head of Grants, I focus on organizational development and fundraising. It's a great role, as I help enable the organization to grow across geographies and across issues. All of that is only possible because of the funds that we raise. We want to become a truly global organization, and I see myself as supporting that goal in my role.

At the end of the day, the larger ClientEarth grows, the better we can combat climate change and protect those who are vulnerable to its impacts using the law. In my role, it’s not just about finding funding for litigation and for developing legal strategies, but it ends up also being about helping donors think about how to redirect financial flows to impactful investments that deliver long-term, lasting change.

PRISM: Awesome. Great intro. There is so much to talk about, but I just wanted to get started with something interesting that you mentioned. When you talked about China and training judges and prosecutors there, what does that actually look like? What does that training mean in practice?

EA: In China, we have this program that started in 2015, where we are using the lessons that we learned in Europe in China. What we do is use our legal expertise to train judges and prosecutors via workshops in which we show them how to bring environmental cases and how to keep government and corporations accountable to the environmental agreements and laws that are in place. Since we've been in China, around 100,000 new environmental cases have been brought forward against polluters. In that sense, a lot of it comes down to capacity development there.

We're also the first European NGO to open an office in China, which is great. We've been able to facilitate dialogue with the Chinese government, European governments, and UK governments. We've been able to advise the government very closely on climate and environmental policy, too. So, ClientEarth is very highly regarded as a partner and collaborator in China.

PRISM: I think China is a good segue into the first sort of broad question about the climate, which is: Where are we right now when it comes to China? There's a “net-zero” commitment, and their actions are ramping up, but there are obviously still a ton of challenges. From our point of view, it seems like it is all still a bit difficult to untangle, so, I think getting a better sense of where we stand now would be helpful.

EA: That's a very good question. The Conference of the Parties – the COP26 – that was in Glasgow recently showed us that there is a strong global commitment to reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century. Around 130 countries signed up to the agreement to meet that target. But one thing that we need to be very careful about is greenwashing, when the public perceives corporations or governments as becoming more environmentally friendly, but in reality, their activities are not changing to benefit the planet at all. Our focus on this is one of the reasons why we play such an important role in prompting systemic change. We talk to those in positions of leadership and power to make changes and we work to make sure that what happens benefits the people and the planet.

Greenwashing is one of our flagship topics. For example, last year, we launched a complaint against BP, which misled the public by promoting their low-carbon energy products and their transition to net-zero targets, when 96% of BP’s annual spending was still on oil and gas. This is the kind of thing that we do currently: raising awareness around corporate messages and commitments because there’s a lot of greenwashing happening.

But going back to COP26, which was your main question: Progress was made, and more countries than ever signed up to net-zero commitments. There's also a global commitment to end deforestation. But now that that’s over, the next important thing to look at is what happens in 2022 with each country's nationally determined contributions – or NDCs – and to think about how these will be implemented. It’s not just climate promises, but it's also action and implementation that we need to think about.

PRISM: Let’s dive into some of those things that you mentioned. On the greenwashing piece, is that mostly a corporate thing, where you pressure companies from the outset? Does it come from a client point of view, where you end up suing companies for greenwashing and being misleading? Or does it also encompass governments making commitments and then not meeting them?

EA: As I was saying, greenwashing is when the public is deceived by corporations or governments into thinking that they are becoming more environmentally friendly. Ad campaigns, as we saw with the BP case, end up being all words and there is a lot of fluff around political statements, so the commitments that are established end up not being actionable or are impossible to actually achieve.

How we hold governments that participate in greenwashing to account is through the NDCs, which are these plans that each country needs to submit to show how they will cut their emissions. Under the Paris Agreement, by the end of 2022 each country will have to raise their ambitions and submit new NDCs. This is where we as an organization will find it easiest to scrutinize governments and hold them accountable.

PRISM: You mentioned the target of reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century. Are we on track to meet that?

EA: We remain optimistic. There is some good stuff in those agreements, including the plans to review the NDCs every five years and to make them increasingly ambitious. Hopefully, yes, we are on track currently to meet that target. There are some studies and projections that show that the NDCs could keep us at a temperature increase of 1.8 degrees – maybe slightly below or higher. That’s slightly higher than the 1.5 degree increase that is the target. A lot of things have happened at COP, but more still needs to be done. That's why at ClientEarth we think the approach is top down, where we must work with decision makers and those in positions of influence so that we have the leaders in place for the world to change.

PRISM: Are you sort of in a position where you wait for commitments to be made and then hold them accountable to them? Or are you actively pushing and advocating for more ambitious commitments?

EA: On the NDCs? Yeah. As I was saying earlier, a lot of what we do is to push the governments we advise to be more ambitious. We advise governments and stakeholders to create better and stronger laws that protect the environment. Everything we do, for sure, seeks to raise ambition and accelerate change. And then, if they don't follow those laws, we challenge them to ensure that they are being implemented and enforced.

PRISM: If I'm interpreting this correctly, it sounds like there is an existing track of commitments that governments have made and that these are under where we need to be, but that every time everyone comes to the table things get a bit more ambitious, so that current trend is giving some reason for hope. Is that what you are saying? If so, I want to push you on that because I feel like it is very optimistic. In my mind there is this thinking where everyone is saying, “Even what we're saying we will do is not going to be enough, and the planet is completely done.” What you have said feels optimistic.

EA: I think we need to be optimistic. We need to celebrate the wins, too. There are some things that happened at Glasgow – the COP26 – that were not achieved at the COP21 in Paris, and not achieved in the five years between the summits. In the new agreement, there's a mention of phasing down coal, and there is an agreement between the US and China to cut emissions from fossil fuels and methane. There are clear commitments that weren't there before. There will always be people who say that it’s not enough. We hear those voices, but we also need to make sure there is balance. And we need to make sure that we celebrate our wins and the progress that has been made.

PRISM: I think that that brings us to our next question, which is sort of what is underrated and overrated when it comes to climate. In my mind, it feels like COP26 was a bit underrated? I feel like everybody thought nothing came of it and nothing would, but maybe it was a bit underrated.

EA: Again, different people have different views. It’s very glass-half-full or glass-half-empty. We conducted a survey a few months ago – before COP26 – and we asked the public about their thoughts on climate and what priorities they believe are needed to tackle climate change. The most interesting results that came back to us were that most people think that climate change is about biodiversity, renewable energy, and deforestation. Nothing was mentioned about climate finance, the flow of money that goes into funding the infrastructure needed to make the planet a better place, for example, which is a key factor in addressing climate change. People seem more concerned with the impacts on the natural world and the everyday changes that they see, rather than how climate change impacts the economy.

At the end of the day, the climate and environment are so linked that you cannot change one without changing the other. Of course, biodiversity, renewable energy, and all that are very important issues, and they are all vital to the discourse around climate change, but climate finance is hugely underrated. It’s not a topic that the public is aware about, and the climate’s impact on the economy is virtually undiscussed, despite all of us paying taxes and keeping the economy going. Innately we know that the economy is important to us, but we don’t necessarily connect it to the natural world or climate change.

On the survey again, it showed us there are many that think a lack of action by governments is one of the biggest barriers to tackling climate change. People did not blame independent corporations or businesses for inaction. That’s surprising, too, right? Businesses can work to protect our planet. They can accelerate action without input from governments. They don’t have to wait for the NDCs. They already have the mechanisms to act, but the public doesn’t really rate them as playing a big part in accelerating change.

PRISM: Do you think that corporations are underperforming relative to governments at this stage?

EA: I wouldn't say underperforming, but I would say that they can act much more quickly without having to wait for real policy change at the country level. If a company wants to change how it does its business, such as by having completely environmentally friendly investments, they don’t need to wait a decade. They can act tomorrow.

PRISM: It seems like there are broad economic and financial things that people don't think about enough when it comes to addressing climate change – or at least their importance is underrated. Are there things from a legal standpoint where attention is not as closely paid?

EA: One of the first things that I learned when I started working at ClientEarth five years ago is that pensions are so important. Most people who have one have no idea where their money is invested. We do a lot of work as an organization informing the public that they can choose where their money goes. Telling them, “You can make sure that the investments that are made for you today are not completely blinded by short-term gains, but rather long-term ones.” Unless someone tells you that, you wouldn’t know that. I wouldn’t have known to call my pension provider and say, “My pension is going here and instead can you put it here?”

It's the same thing with bank accounts. There are so many banks that we have our accounts with that might be contributors to deforestation, might be investing most of their money into fossil fuels, in tar sands, and things like that. So, unless you go and check this yourself, there’s no real way of knowing. The average bank customer is not going to know what their bank is involved in. So, that means it is important to raise awareness, because then the public can be involved in the finance and economic side of things, by contributing to encouraging more sustainable financial flows.

PRISM: That’s interesting. I guess we talked about the government's role and then we talked about the private sector, but then there is this individual responsibility part that is very interesting. How from the climate change side of things do people see individual responsibility as being part of the future? Like is fighting climate change only going to work if people travel less or make individual choices?

EA: That's a very good question. There is no one solution to tackle climate change. It is all cumulative. It’s not just going to come down to political wins, it’s not just financial flows, and it’s not just going to come down to individuals making behavioral changes. Sometimes, I feel that people feel powerless when it comes to tackling climate change. In a sense there is almost too much that we could all be doing, and then each one of those changes feels like it has such a small impact, so we come away thinking: What’s the point? But really, even small changes can make a big difference, because it's the communal efforts that can bring system change that’s lasting.

PRISM: It often feels like extreme weather and the loss of biodiversity are the two main conversations that come up with climate change. Are those really the only two or are there others?

EA: From a ClientEarth standpoint, we work across issues. There are other impacts that we are seeing through our work that are not necessarily at the forefront of the conversations around climate change. One of them is agriculture and food production. Another one is migration.

Extreme weather is the most obvious impact of climate change, and everyone notices that impact; temperatures rise, there are more storms, et cetera. But temperature increases impact the food system.

Our agricultural system relies on there being certain types of weather and them being consistent. Extreme weather changes in these patterns can have knock-on effects on food production. That's important for countries like the UK where 80% of food is imported. So, climate change brings a host of different challenges: temperatures get hotter, growing seasons get longer, leading to more weeds, more insects, and so on. Then if you have more insects, pesticide use goes up. That harms plants and beneficial insects like pollinators (bees, butterflies), so there are knock-on impacts that need to be considered. The effect of climate change on agricultural systems is one of the topics that might not be as apparent, but it’s still an important one.

Then, the second one is mass migration resulting from climate change. Climate refugee is becoming a more widely used term that refers to those having to migrate across borders because of climate change’s impacts. Interestingly, this term is not a part of the UN's definition of refugees, meaning that climate refugees under international law go unrecognized, and therefore, they have very few rights. We're already seeing this massive displacement, particularly in the Global South, which is bearing the brunt of climate change. We are predicting that there will be at least 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050. That’s a huge number, and so far, it hasn’t been given much attention. It’s not something that ClientEarth works on at the moment, but it is something that we could potentially work on in the future.

Again, going back to your question about how we achieve change; it does have to start at the top. It is a top-down approach. It is the decision-makers, the institutions, and the ones in power that need to make change.

PRISM: Shifting gears and this is a bit of a ten-years out question, but what do you see as potential paths here? I think we started our conversation thinking about the baseline scenario, with the expectation that things are on an upward trajectory from here – at least from the standpoint of NDCs. Is that the most plausible future? What are the other plausible ones?

EA: I think it's difficult to think about. It's a good question, and the next decade is going to be key in setting the direction of things and establishing urgency around climate change. I'm not under-estimating how much urgency there is; because different geographies will be impacted in different ways, it is hard to think about specifics of what will happen. If we can reach net zero and slow global warming by mid-century, that would be great, but before COP26, it seemed that climate change was not being taken that seriously, maybe that has shifted a bit. I remain optimistic.

From what we do at ClientEarth – that is using the law to fight climate change – we are likely going to see that we can use more litigation to bring about change and to accelerate it. It's actually a beautiful thing to think about. In this scenario, citizens will be taking the law into their own hands and changing the course of action. I think we will see more of that especially as young people get more engaged and start using litigation as a tool to hold governments accountable. Maybe more cases will be brought concerning fundamental rights of communities, which goes back to migration, but for right now, there is not as much thinking around that. For most people, climate change is about nature and extreme weather. In reality though, it’s also about peoples’ rights to life, to their homes, to food, to water, and to health.

A great example of this is that in 2019, ClientEarth brought a case to the Human Rights Commission, with the Torres Strait Islanders, whose islands and homes are being threatened by rising sea levels. The case was brought against the Australian government over their inaction on climate change because we believe that those islanders have a right to a home and to life. So, the goal is to keep governments accountable for those rights and how climate change impacts them. We are also starting to bring individual claimants cases across the UK, defending individuals whose health has been directly impacted by poor air quality and pollution. Because, again, everybody has a right to breathe clean air in cities across the UK, for example.

PRISM: If the trend is that there will be more litigation in this area, is it governments that should be concerned or is it companies? What are the sorts of remedies that you are trying to get out of the government? Is it getting them to take action or is it a financial payout?

EA: You can apply the law to a lot of different things, right? You could probably take these cases from a lot of different angles, but the target of the case is going to be whoever we think needs to be held accountable – whoever is breaking the law. So, the focus is really compliance and accountability, not so much compensation. In some cases, it might escalate to compensation, but from our perspective, the end goal is to make sure that that law is enforced. At the end of the day, if a law is there but not being followed, accountability needs to follow. That’s really what we are after.

What we do in a sense is to accelerate action. Ultimately, you know, citizens who are impacted are also people who vote. So, it's likely that they are going to have even more weight and influence on policymakers and decision makers and in that aspect.

PRISM: That’s a really interesting point. On one hand, it's obvious that citizens influence the government, but on the other hand that real influence is not something that we have seen a lot of. We've seen a lot of dissatisfaction with the government around environmental issues. Everyone's talks about it, but nothing really gets done, and it is never reflected in electoral outcomes. Is there a scenario where this changes?

EA: Well, in theory, the law acts independently of political decisions. If there's a judge that orders a country or company to do a certain thing, then they sort of must abide. Maybe these issues won’t swing many peoples’ opinions, but it will sway how a government abides by laws that will impact on the environment. For example, it might become difficult for a country to pass a law that discounts the word climate or climate change completely, since it would go against nationally determined contribution commitments, the signing of the Paris Agreement, or promises to keep warning below some amount of degree. From there, it becomes the question of if politicians start talking the talk or walking the walk. They can do either, but at the end of the day, there are mechanisms in place to hold them accountable. This is not something that has been used in Europe that much, but it is something that you are starting to see in the US, where law students have brought climate cases. So, hopefully, this is a trend that we will see in the next decade, where more of this litigation is brought to improve accountability.

PRISM: It's very interesting to think about. There's almost like this idea that things will not be based on new laws, but that the really big impact will come from the ones that are already on the books since there are already laws there to protect fundamental rights, people's health, and so on. What do those laws end up being? And it almost seems like politics doesn’t matter as much as some might think. Is that the right way to think about it?

EA: Exactly. The law is such a powerful tool. We've been so successful in Europe, because it was not a model that was used in Europe at all 15 years ago. At one point nobody officially in the EU would litigate against specific companies, industries, governments, and whatnot. Using the law was immensely valuable because you're completely independent from any political or bureaucratic influence.

If new laws need to be written, then we try to make sure they’ve got ‘teeth’ and the right levers to protect the environment so that future generations can hold governments accountable.

PRISM: Great. So, now I’m interested in picking up on that country-specific piece. If you’re in the UK or Europe, I feel like things generally look a little more positive than if you’re sitting in the US. I mean right now, in the US there is an administration that talks a lot about climate change, but really the outlook isn’t that positive for them to do anything substantive. Then you look to China, and I guess there's a lot of talk from there, but they’re using a lot of coal. So, there seems to be this sense that some places are doing better than others, with Europe being the obvious example of one place that is doing a bit better. If the US and China are the real problems, is it really just down to them to agree on these things at the end of the day?

EA: Yes, for sure. In a way, collaboration from the big emitters will be fundamental. The US and China are a fundamental piece of the puzzle, as we saw at COP26 and we got a first-ever joint statement where both powerhouses said, “Well, we will start reducing fossil fuel emissions over the next decades.” We got a mention of reducing coal use that wasn’t in there before. So, there's definitely a ramping up of action from the big players and they will have to collaborate. The US and China are essential pieces of the puzzle. I think that one thing that people don’t talk about much is that China is set to host the second phase of the COP15 in 2022. That’s a nature and biodiversity conference.

China could show leadership on the biodiversity front, and I really hope that this conference gets the same recognition as COP26 and the same media coverage, because it is a very important issue, too. If China takes a leadership role in this, it would be important and it is still relevant to climate, as nature and climate are largely interlinked. One cannot be solved without the other, or at least if you only work on solving one, most of your efforts will end up being redundant.

PRISM: I really hadn't thought about it that way. I was really thinking about the two as independent, but this idea that fixing the climate is needed to save biodiversity is maybe not obvious to a lot of people. Like what is the link between them? Is there a link where more biodiversity improves the climate as well and therefore biodiversity ends up being part of the climate change puzzle?

EA: We simply wouldn’t exist without nature and so I think nature should always be a part of the climate conversation. Without getting too deep into the science, there are carbon pathways and food webs that are impacted by the climate. But these also impact the climate. So, for example, when we think about deforestation and think about cutting down the Amazon, we not only are talking about releasing carbon, but we are talking about a loss of biodiversity because the Amazon houses millions of species. When you cut down forests, you release tons of carbon, but then you also reach a point where carbon is not being sequestered. Then you just have open land or deserts. That creates its own problems. If we go back to pollinators, when the forest goes away, pollinators decrease, and then there is no more pollination, which means there are even fewer plants and less sequestration of carbon. There ends up being all of these knock-on impacts. Animals are a central part of our ecosystem, and the presence of different species completely changes the landscape of things. Just consider beavers in a river ecosystem. The dams they create prevent flooding downriver, but then you have the species that prey on them, and so on. It’s all interlinked.

This unprecedented species mass extinction that we are experiencing (the 6th to be exact) is really important to our future. It’s the first mass extinction caused by another species (humans), normally its volcanic eruptions, asteroids, or whatever else. This one is manmade.

PRISM: That’s very interesting. I think we are in a good place to wrap up. But I have one more question that gets back to what we discussed previously. At a personal level, what are you doing? We’ve talked about the corporate responses and all the other pieces, but I’d be interested in how you think individuals can have impacts.

EA: I think that everyone can play their part in combating climate change, and everyone’s little contribution ends up creating a much larger ripple effect and systemic change emerges from that. I’ve been working in this field for 10 years, and I've gone along with a lot of the personal fixes: recycling, eating less meat, taking fewer plane journeys, driving less, buying less clothing. But one of the things that has brought me the most satisfaction has been gardening. I have a little garden outside and I live in London, and so the garden as you can imagine is not huge, but I've really paid attention to make sure that I attract pollinators. I started planting flowers that attract butterflies, bees and other insects. That brought in more bird species that feed on those insects. And it was great to see this garden – even if it's a small patch – come to life. All of this is done without using pesticides. There are natural ways of gardening. All of this is to highlight something that we haven’t talked about yet, but that cities play a very important role in restoring what were one natural habitats, and the species that live within them. We can create a space where humans and nature can co-existing. This way wildlife and the natural world are not squeezed out. Gardening and bringing wildlife to our homes is one way to do it in addition to planting more trees and having more green spaces.

Urban gardening also ends up being another solution to cutting down emissions, by addressing the high environmental cost of getting blueberries and avocados from the other side of the world. Using our backyards to get some of our produce or consuming more local foods rather than relying on global good supply chains has a meaningful impact. So, changing these habits and being conscious of where our food comes from at the supermarket is valuable.

I guess to answer your question, whether it’s my personal behavior or it’s my work, I want to look at my children one day and be able to say, ‘‘You know, I've tried my best. I did whatever I could to make a difference’’. For me that’s really important.

PRISM: Great. I think that’s a good and hopeful place to end it. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

bottom of page