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Why Gulf arbitration needs a carbon footprint rethink 

As demand grows, so does the industry’s responsibility towards sustainability

gulf arbitration Fatima Balfaqeeh Pexels/Mikhail Nilov
Even when the law requires a signature on a document the parties can sign electronically

Demand for arbitration services is surging in the Middle East as companies and individuals look to settle disputes out of court – a cheaper and lower-profile path to resolution. 

Take Dubai International Arbitration Centre, whose caseload increased in value sixfold to AED11 billion ($3 billion) last year, involving parties from 48 countries worldwide, according to its 2022 annual report.   

But as this vital pillar of legal services grows in prominence, so too does the industry’s responsibility to raise awareness of and encourage sustainable practices among its stakeholders. 

The average carbon footprint, globally, of one medium-sized arbitration is 418,531 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent. This volume of emissions requires the planting of 20,000 trees to offset its environmental impact, according to a study in 2020 by US multinational law firm Dechert. 

The figure takes into account various aspects of a typical arbitration, including long and short-haul flights, printing of hearing bundles, couriers and hotel stays. Unsurprisingly, flying contributed the most to total emissions. 

The study was undertaken as part of an industry-wide environmental impact assessment by the Campaign for Greener Arbitrations, an initiative to address the carbon footprint of international arbitrations and mediations by US and UK-registered arbitrator Lucy Greenwood. 

Her initial Green Pledge of 2019, adopted by many arbitrators, counsel and clients, was the first step towards the industry moving to tackle its environmental impacts. 

Much of the focus since then has been on broader, policy-based issues related to climate change or sustainability-related disputes.

But I believe we must embrace a new norm.

With Cop28 fast approaching, the urgency to align with eco-friendly guidelines and facilitate change across our everyday operations has never been more pressing. 

A slow-evolving sector  

Historically, the legal industry has been relatively slow to adopt newer practices and technologies. The profession is built on a solid foundation of principles, rules and regulations, so it can take time to shift people’s thinking. 

But parties, lawyers, arbitrators and institutions alike all play an essential role in the sustainability journey.

I firmly believe that when practitioners become more aware of how they can help by collaborating with one another more effectively, this transition will become effortless.

Certainly, more regulation is needed to encourage sustainable practices in the region and beyond, but the Middle East and North Africa arbitration community can spearhead efforts and set an example for the entire legal landscape. 

Any step in the right direction is progress. And progress, rather than perfection, matters when it comes to achieving sustainability in our work environments. Going green is not rocket science. It’s achievable and will change our lives for the better. 

Here are several steps the industry could take to improve its footprint, inspired by the Campaign for Greener Arbitration: 

  • Minimise use of paper
    Use e-bundles of documents where possible rather than physical copies and let other parties know you prefer to receive documents in that way. Even when the law requires a signature on a document, the parties can sign electronically.
  • Is printing really necessary?
    Avoid scratching the itch to have every contract, memo and award in a physical copy. This shift won’t happen overnight given that paperwork has always been our go-to format; it’s a learning curve. In the meantime ensure that contracts are double-sided and use recycled/recyclable paper and LED UV printers.
  • Push for virtual hearings
    Since Covid there has been a big shift towards document-only arbitration, whether it’s a small claim or a fully fledged virtual hearing held via various video conference platforms.
  • Travel responsibly
    Parties need to reassess their criteria for selecting not just the right arbitrator for the job, but also the most sustainable. By limiting unnecessary air transport and instead selecting equally experienced arbitrators from within the country in question, we can help conduct more sustainable hearings.

Fatima Balfaqeeh is managing partner of Balfaqeeh Advocates & Legal Consultancy

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