All of the many international treaties that we now rely on to achieve more sustainable development, the great benefits we derive from European-level environmental legislation and many national initiatives, such as the Climate Change Act, were shaped and made to work in practice through decades of effort by legal minds. It is a great legacy and one that we must urgently build upon.

Attorney General, ladies and gentlemen, I really could not be more pleased to be here this evening for this very special occasion to launch the Legal Sector Alliance Principles to tackle climate change. The importance of what you – the legal community – is doing cannot be overestimated.

With the recent coming into force of the Climate Change Act, the United Kingdom has become the first country anywhere in the world to enshrine in law binding and ambitious climate change targets. This is hugely signficant. With the help of the Climate Change Committee, established by the Act, this country is now set on a course to cut our emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. The legal profession might not often be seen as at the frontline in efforts to protect the climate and conserve the natural environment, but law is of course one of the core disciplines that has helped secure much of the positive progress we have seen in recent decades.

All of the many international treaties that we now rely on to achieve more sustainable development, the great benefits we derive from European-level environmental legislation and many national initiatives, such as the Climate Change Act, were shaped and made to work in practice through decades of effort by legal minds. It is a great legacy and one that we must urgently build upon.

For example, the 2050 target set out in the Climate Change Act differs from many other environmental goals set out in law, not only posing a major challenge for particular sectors, but one for the whole of our society. It requires changes in technology and regulation and, crucially, changes to our very behaviour. This is why I believe it is essential for companies in different sectors to focus on their core areas of expertize, in your case the law, building low carbon thinking into all that you do. This is the way that we will change the way we think and thus transform our collective impact.

In many ways this is a daunting task,but it is one we have to achieve if we are to have any hope of avoiding the catastrophic climate change which science tells us, very clearly, is growing almost by the day.

I am only too aware of sounding alarmist and, indeed, of the fact that many still believe there is no actual validity to the science of climate change and thus no man-made contribution to the changes we are witnessing, but please be in no doubt that unless greenhouse gas emissions reach their peak within about one hundred months – just one hundred months – it may well be too late to stop temperatures rising beyond dangerous levels – levels that would render unbelievably large parts of the world uninhabitable. We do not have decades to deal with this, we have but a very few years.

That is why what you are doing this evening is of such crucial importance. For this reason I can only commend each and every company that has signed the Principles and, of course, the Law Society for partnering with Business in the Community, of which I am President, to make these Principles a reality.

But, ladies and gentlemen, it would never have happened without the leadership of one man, Nigel Knowles of DLA Piper. It is often the case that it does take just one person in the right place at the right time, with the right motivation to make a huge difference. And that is exactly what Nigel did after attending, poor man, my first May Day Business Summit on Climate Change in 2007 when we convened more than one thousand business leaders and asked them to take collective action to reduce their carbon emissions. Nigel saw the point immediately and picked up my challenge not only for businesses to respond, but whole sectors too. Working with Business in the Community, the Law Society of England and Wales, the Environmental Law Foundation and the other founding members, Nigel has been tireless in his efforts to create the Legal Sector Alliance we are launching on this occasion, and therefore I wanted to offer my most heartfelt thanks and congratulations to him and everyone involved for rising to the challenge.

You might be interested to know that the legal sector is joining a stable of other sectoral initiatives which have come out of the May Day Network and my Business and the Environment Programme. We are, for instance, working with the pensions and insurance sectors, as well as with the bus and marketing sectors. We even have a nascent retail sector initiative too, and there are a number of other sectors I am afraid I want to have a go at!

Each of these groups has recognized how much more can be achieved through working together than could ever be achieved individually, and I do hope that other sectors will follow the example you and they have set. I can assure you that it really makes a difference, but only because the groups are determined that their work should be rigorous.

For instance, the Legal Sector Principles encourage law firms to take a strategic view across all aspects of what they do and to look at the problem of climate change as part of the whole business, embedding it at the heart of their operations. This means it is dealt with at senior partner level and so it cannot just be “business as usual with little green knobs on!”

Of course, the reason why the legal sector is particularly important is that you have a uniquely influential position with your clients – hence the fact that the Principles recognize very clearly the need to work in partnership with clients, suppliers, employees and policy-makers to reduce the sector’s carbon emissions. Businesses must take a combined approach to tackling climate change – it is not something that can be faced alone.

I hasten to say that clear measurement and reporting are also vital. Companies often complain that benchmarking is unfair because somebody will always come last, but the Legal Sector Alliance has tackled this head-on through the development of its carbon footprint protocol which will promote transparency and comparability, as well as supporting smaller firms in measuring their footprint. It is a testament to the value of public reporting and the leadership they have demonstrated this past year that the LSA’s twenty founding members will all be reporting their carbon footprint using the LSA protocol next week. I would urge other firms to follow their lead – it is only through openness of this sort that the initiative will have real credibility.

But there is one very particular reason why I am so pleased that the legal sector has embarked on this initiative. Over the years, I think I have heard just about every excuse why companies cannot work together. There are suggestions that even talking to one another will bring down whole armies of corporate lawyers breathing fire and bearing writs for anti-competitive behaviour. But if the legal sector can come together then there is no excuse whatsoever for any other to resist! Fear not, I will never hesitate to use the example you have set – however uncomfortable it might make some people!

Just before I finish, I particularly want to commend BITC and the Law Society for finding a very innovative, low carbon venue for the launch and for ensuring that we are all enjoying locally-sourced canapés and, indeed, wine produced in the garden of England. It shows what can be done at every level to make your operations more sustainable and, dare I say it, even helping family farmers who do so much to keep our countryside as beautiful as it is, it doesn’t happen by accident. There is an exhibition here this evening which will give you endless other tips on what you can do and I can only urge you to have a look later.

Now, if I may say so, I am delighted that Pen Hadow, the indefatigable Arctic explorer, is here this evening. He is leading the Catlin Arctic Survey, of which I am patron, to the North Pole next year to measure the reducing thickness of the ice cap – a stark physical representation of the reality of climate change.. If I am honest, I think I dread what he is going to find, but perhaps it will bring home to those remaining sceptics – how any can exist beggars belief! – of the urgency of the situation we face.

Before you all accuse me of losing touch with aspects of reality, I do of course appreciate that many businesses are facing uncertain times at the moment in the increasingly challenging global economic climate. But no credit crunch we could ever face is going to match the climate crunch that is going to affect every man, woman and child on this planet – and worryingly soon. The trouble is that the long-term health and stability of the global economy is actually dependent on the health and stability of the global environment, and not the other way round. Thus, ladies and gentlemen, the onus is on us. Either we can stand back and do nothing, or we can stand up and make a difference. That is why I can only urge all parts of the legal profession – firms, chambers and in-house legal teams – to sign up to the Legal Sector Alliance principles and join those sixty-three members that have already courageously done so. If you don’t do it for the sake of your business, then I beg you to do it for the sake of your children and grandchildren.