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UK - Which geo-environmental risks should property lawyers (and our clients) be most concerned about?

Lawyers and environmental data - My fellow solicitors and their Professional Support Lawyers sometimes tell me they feel besieged by an ever-increasing number of different types of environmental reports which they are required or encouraged to commission: reports for flooding, contaminated land, ground stability and other types of geo-environmental risks.

There are now separate reports for climate risk, albeit of variable quality. There seems to be an endless tide.

“We’re not environmental data scientists”, they say. Some wish they did not have to commission reports which they rarely read and feel that they are not technically qualified to interpret. But there are real risks for solicitors and clients alike if a head-in-the-sand approach is taken, as I seek to explain in the first of a series of blogs.

Solicitors do need to engage with this not least because environmental risks could become more manifest as a result of climate change. As former UK Supreme Court Justice Lord Carnwath said:

“Lawyers have a special role to play in taking us from climate ambition to climate action. They can lead the way both by their own business practices and the example they set to their clients, and by ensuring that climate issues are at the heart of the thinking behind the legal transactions and documents on which they are advising.”

So, yes, solicitors are not environmental consultants, but we are not lay people either. All real estate solicitors are going to have to get to grips with this by understanding the impacts that geo-environmental risks in a changing climate will have on land and buildings – including significantly increased number of properties being impacted by subsidence and flooding in particular. They will also need to understand how their duty of care to real estate clients applies to long term climate risks, which we touch on below and will consider in a future blog. We start though by considering the nature and extent of geo-environmental risks as they stand today.

Thinking about risk – frequency of occurrence and magnitude of harm

First of all, let’s step back and consider the nature of risk so we can start to understand why some geo-environmental risks are much more important than others.

Risk is the possible occurrence of an adverse event. In the context of geo-environmental events, this includes all types of flooding, coastal erosion, contamination, subsidence, and other adverse phenomena which have an adverse impact on the use and enjoyment of land and buildings.

Risk consists of two elements: a) the probability of incurring a loss; and b) the magnitude of that loss which is typically expressed in monetary terms.

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