ClientEarth uses law to tackle the climate crisis. We pair up with lawyers and charities throughout Europe to fight dirty coal. Maria-Jolie Veder, one of our energy lawyers, tells us how we work with local experts to help people take on polluting coal.
How do you clean up coal?
We challenge coal plants that are unlawfully polluting, to get them to clean up or shut down. My work mostly focuses on the Western Balkans. That makes for a very interesting legal environment. These countries are not part of the EU, but do have to transpose certain elements of EU environmental law. They are all at different stages of aligning their legal systems with the EU. We also want to support NGOs to push for the national laws that are needed to ensure that people are protected from the harm cause by pollution.
Why do you work with local partners in your target countries?
What I find very special is that I get to work with lots of national and regional NGOs with a wide range of expertise; some of them are real grassroots organisations. They’re doing fantastic work and we help translate that into effective legal action on an international level. We bring cases to international bodies like the UN and the Secretariat of the Energy Community. I am happy I can apply my legal knowledge in their existing campaign and accelerate their work. One example I’m proud of – together with our regional partners, we challenged a new coal plant financed by illegal state aid in Bosnia. We brought a case, and the Energy Community Secretariat is investigating.
We also work a lot on the trans-boundary impact from coal plants, and the legal obligations they trigger. Together with Greenpeace, we wrote a report that showed that the toxic fumes coming from two plants being built in Bosnia and Herzegovina would affect people in all surrounding countries. We sent it to NGOs in Serbia, Italy and Croatia. These NGOs used their rights under international conventions to ask their own ministries of environment and foreign affairs to ensure they’d be consulted on this highly polluting power plant, whose toxic fumes would affect people in all the surrounding countries. The report was picked up by media in Bosnia and Italy.
The EU is becoming much more aware that what happens in the Western Balkans potentially has a big effect on neighbouring countries. This is also thanks to some amazing reports produced by other NGOs like CEE Bankwatch. ClientEarth has the legal expertise to initiate projects like this, but we need other NGOs to do what they’re good at – like mobilising local support. We want to engage people, to make them realise they have the right to be involved in whether coal plants that will affect their health are given permits, even if they are living in a different country. We want to empower people to act, and to make sure people have a voice in international procedures.
What motivates you?
My main motivation is my fear of what will happen if we do not cut greenhouse gas emissions soon. The way the industry and world leaders treat the climate crisis is maddening.
But I always feel really inspired and happy after meeting the people we work with. You get a reality check, and you understand things – and each other – much better than when you email. Before the Covid-19 lockdown I met our partners in Serbia, I really learnt a lot. Belgrade is a very impressive city, it makes me want to work even harder to protect the people who live there, and you get more of a sense of the political and cultural differences between Serbia and Brussels.
How has COVID-19 affected you and your work?
Due to COVID-19, I haven’t been in my Brussels home in five weeks. I’m staying in my parents’ small flat in their garden, so I can help them with food shopping and other things. Hopefully I’ll be able to go back to Brussels soon. I miss being able to hug my family and friends.
I’m on Zoom and Skype call a lot, and meanwhile we’ve been busier than ever. I miss being able to talk to my colleagues face-to-face. I speak to our partners in Serbia and elsewhere, and they are having a hard time doing their work due to the circumstances.
The COVID-19 measures in Serbia are very strict and include strict curfews, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection is practically closed. Meanwhile, coal plants and other industrial facilities keep on polluting. They are still working very hard, and so are we.
What would you tell an aspiring young environmental lawyer?
I would say there is always room for more help in this field so just do it, follow your heart – don’t be distracted by what people might consider to be wiser or more profitable career options.
Who’s your environmental hero?
My heroes are the lawyers who have been doing this work for 20 or 30 years. Like Alexander Kodjabashev, the lawyer we work with in Bulgaria. Now, climate change is becoming very visible and a lot of people are getting more into environmental protection. But there are people who’ve been working on this for the decades. Those people working at a time when no one was listening, and in countries where it was not easy at all, are my heroes.
What’s your favourite beauty spot?
The Alps – I once went hiking near Chamonix and Mont Blanc, it was insanely beautiful. Last summer I was at the end of the Italian Alps, towards the Mediterranean, I just love the mountains – probably because I’m from such a flat country! I think Europe doesn’t get credited enough for its environmental beauty.