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Justice for Change: Accountability for Australia's Corporate 'Net Zero' Emissions Claims

Jacque Flaherty

“Climate law is so much more than just dealing with issues of climate change—there are also elements of human rights, workers’ rights, and protections of country and culture,” said Zoe Bush, senior climate lawyer at the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO).

As the largest environmental law organisation in the Australia Pacific region, the EDO has a strong track record of using the law to protect wildlife, culture, community, and climate. Recently, the EDO has been representing the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) in a landmark Federal Court case that examines harmful environmental claims made by a major Australian oil and gas company.

Discovering the Truth Behind ‘Net Zero’ Carbon Emissions Claims

When companies make climate claims and disclosures to their stakeholders in annual reports and investor filings, the extent to which their product or investment strategy is environmentally friendly, sustainable, or ethical is provided mostly on a volunteer basis. This is an evolving area to which Australia's securities (ASIC), consumer (ACCC), and prudential (APRA) regulators are now responding.

“This case is part of a broader trend in fossil fuel companies claiming to be ‘net zero’ to their clients and investors. Gone unchecked, it’s essentially marketing their use of natural gas to compete with actual renewables like solar wind,” said Kirsty Ruddock, managing lawyer at the EDO.

“The International Energy Agency has come out and said that, to keep warming within safer limits and avoid catastrophic climate change, there can be no new fossil fuel projects. What we’re finding is many organisations saying they’re going to be ‘net zero’ emissions, while they’re simultaneously planning to increase fossil fuel production,” said Zoe. Further than problematic claims about emissions targets, the ACCR and EDO are also arguing that the defendant’s ‘net zero’ plan should not be considered viable.

To support their case, the EDO has had to review thousands of documents produced by the other side—many of them PDFs containing highly technical engineering documentation.

How Non-profits Are Accessing Much Needed Technology Resources

“I originally thought we could do the document review manually. We’re two non-profits, so e-discovery technology isn’t something we can afford, and we only had a small amount of documents to review on our side; but even so, the manual process turned out to be torturous,” said Zoe.

The EDO urgently reached out to a law firm for assistance. As a RelativityOne customer and Justice for Change partner, this law firm could provide access to the e-discovery technology that would help them design the most efficient workflow in response to the data received. Doing so drastically reduces the overhead of the most time-consuming aspect of the dispute: document review.

Through the Justice for Change program, the law firm was able to host the case in RelativityOne at no cost, quickly getting a review workspace set up. To get the EDO team productive in the software as quickly as possible, they used batching and an efficient coding pane that ensured the documents were assigned to the right experts. They also used custom comment boxes to allow easy communication with Counsel, as well as confidential internal communication between the team.

“RelativityOne was a lifesaver on this case. I had never used it before, and I found it very intuitive. Counsel were really impressed with how quickly we got through the documents,” said Zoe.

The Power of Community

Their partnership highlights one of my favourite elements of the Justice for Change program: the ability to pair recipient organisations with a partner or law firm in our network who will provide access to RelativityOne, as well as administrative and project management support. It means we can tap our Relativity community to provide not just the technology itself, but the resources and expertise to support it, further scaling the impact of these cases.

As a result, we’ve been able to expand the program’s impact exponentially. By reducing the software costs for a law firm to run these cases through the program, we’re removing budget constraints across more aspects of the supply chain—the law firm can take on more pro bono matters, shorten the cycles to complete the legal process, and take advantage of the latest AI-driven technology to organise data, discover the truth, and act on it.

“The law firm was fantastic at getting us set up in RelativityOne really quickly,” said Zoe. “They were experts in the e-discovery process and in RelativityOne, so they could assist us whenever we encountered a problem by suggesting an innovative way to address it.”

This case was the first to challenge a ‘net zero’ target, and while it’s still ongoing, its mere presence is inspiring action globally. After gaining attention in the news, a similar case has been brought up in France; a UN group has assembled to look at these issues and establish a framework for them; and regulators have engaged in investigations of other ‘net zero’ target claims.

ASIC, APRA, and ACCC warn emission targets and climate risk disclosures form part of a company’s existing regulatory obligations. Current prohibitions exist under the Corporations Act 2001 (Corporations Act) and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001 (ASIC Act) to deter representations made by companies that are false, misleading, or deceptive conduct in relation to a financial product or financial service and include environmental and sustainability related products. Representations made about a future matter, including carbon emissions targets such as ‘net zero’ carbon emissions, must have reasonable grounds. ASIC recommends companies turn to the standards outlined in the Financial Stability Board's Tack Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) framework for guidance.

All three regulators have indicated they have their future focus on managing climate-related disclosures and are working to formulate an internationally aligned, standardised framework specific to climate related disclosures—to stop the current trend of greenwashing to promote products.

Regardless of the outcome, you can recognise access to justice and a significant impact on our global community in the journey of bringing the case to Federal Court. Justice for Change and the community around it has helped Zoe and her team “get to the truth about the role these things play in a low carbon world.” And in response, new communities have already sprung up around them to action change.

Organisations interested in learning more about the Justice for Change program or wishing to apply for an upcoming grant should reach out to  

Graphics for this article were designed by Kael Rose.

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Jacque Flaherty is a senior marketing manager at Relativity, focusing on advocating for our user communities in EMEA and APAC.