The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 and incorporates 17 Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). They include ending poverty, improving health and education, reducing inequality, spurring economic growth, and arresting global climate change. In the last decade, and exacerbated by the pandemic, these goals have been put into practice with great effect.

Sustainability, however, still poses challenges and issues. Legal and regulatory intervention, albeit in a balanced manner, can play a significant part in resolving the challenges. This is because the very principles of law, such as justice, equality, order, the protection of fundamental rights, and governance are also the underlying values of the UN SDGs. As such, law is an invaluable tool in establishing a framework for sustainability.

Laws can promote new ways of sustainable development

Importantly, not only can laws resolve some of the challenges faced in sustainability, it can also promote new ways of sustainable development. There are now laws requiring governments and corporations to develop actionable plans to combat climate change, regulations that promote diversity in boardrooms, and so on. The restrictions of laws have prompted innovations and the search for alternative solutions. The real estate industry, for example, has been looking at developing green buildings to take advantage of green incentives, and investing in renewable energy sources. In the financial sector, there are also new green investment products such as green bonds and climate-or sustainable-financing products to fund new projects.

The law, therefore, plays a major part in driving sustainability because it can be both the carrot and the stick in the driver’s seat.

Solving sustainability challenges is akin to solving a Rubik’s cube puzzle — there are some twists and turns before it all comes together.

Lee Weilin, Head of Rajah & Tann’s Sustainability Practice

Lawyers, being trained in identifying the mischief which laws are meant to catch, and who understand the policy reasons behind certain laws are made, are instrumental in navigating the laws on sustainability. By knowing the principles of fairness and impartiality, lawyers can help corporations formulate practical solutions instead of sweeping policies.

The law is, however, not the only or ultimate solution to resolving all the challenges relating to sustainability. Moral hazard, for example, is a perennial problem that can be difficult to resolve with laws, and which may even arise as a result of enacting certain laws.

Solving sustainability challenges is akin to solving a Rubik’s cube puzzle — there are some twists and turns before it all comes together. In a way, the law bolts down stakeholder commitment to the cause, allowing lawyers to work hand-in-hand with other stakeholders, professionals and consultants to promote sustainability.

(Related: Lawyer Vikna Rajah on the rise of family offices in Singapore and how he advises them)

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