D-BRIEF – Employment & Pensions Blog: Employment Law and Climate Change

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) is currently taking place in Glasgow.

The UK has committed to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by 2050 and plans to be the first major economy to require corporations to report climate related risk and opportunities, but what impact does climate change have on employment law?

What can employers do to help the UK meet its targets?

On 30 September 2021, ahead of the UN’s November 2021 climate conference (COP26), The Chancery Lane Project published its Net zero toolkit to help professionals implement climate-conscious clauses in their organisation.

As part of this, a set of aspirational climate change employment terms were published to help employers achieve net zero and put expectations on employees to help reach this goal. Examples are as follows:

  • Employees will only be entitled to have their meals expensed, including meals with clients, if they choose vegetarian options.
  • Employees who walk or cycle to their office are given a “green travel allowance”.
  • To discourage workers from driving to the office, they may be subject to a daily parking charge, which will be donated to charity.
  • Employees could receive additional holiday entitlement if they choose to take their annual leave domestically rather than travelling abroad.

The impact of the pandemic on the workplace means that many employees are now hybrid working and there is a balance to consider of less commuting vs heating homes for longer. Employers can provide training, guidance and encouragement on the environmental response for employees working from home.

Can belief in climate change be a protected characteristic under discrimination legislation?

The UK Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) ruled in Grainger v Nicholson (2010) that belief in climate change was capable of being a “belief” for the purposes of UK equality law provided the belief was, amongst other things, genuinely held and established rather than merely asserted. In this case, Mr Nicholson argued that his belief relating to climate change and the need to cut carbon emissions was “not merely an opinion but a philosophical belief which affected how he lived his life including choice of home, how he travelled, what he bought, what he ate and drank, what he did with his waste and his hopes and fears”.

Since the belief in climate change can amount to a protected characteristic, employers should be mindful of this in the workplace and consider how policies and procedures about, for example, attending the office and requirements around business travel could give rise to indirect discrimination claims where an employer wants someone to act contrary to their beliefs.

For more information please contact a member of the Employment Team.

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