Action against climate change: is it a protected characteristic?
Climate change has dominated our newspapers, news sites and social media feeds in recent years. From emotional pleas from David Attenborough to Extinction Rebellion protests blocking our motorways and COP26, it’s impossible to ignore, and the Office for National Statistics recently reported that three quarters of adults now worry about climate change.
Having said that, the level of responsibility we all feel differs. Whether you’re concerned enough to join the protests, or you have banned single-use plastic from your workplace, or you believe the issue of global warming is for the next generation to deal with, there’s no denying that climate change is starting to affect the way we work.
Do employers have a responsibility to act against climate change?
Most employers make a nod to fighting climate change or doing better for the environment in their staff policies, office habits or working practices. It can be anything from including a Cycle to Work scheme in the staff benefits package, to encouraging office staff to recycle, or even switching to a paper-free or paper light way of working.
Another way in which organisations demonstrate that they are taking action is within their Corporate Social Responsibility model. Within this policy, employers will make a commitment to reduce their carbon footprint or state that they have asked staff to reduce the amount of paper they use.
UK employers do not currently have a legal obligation to help fight climate change. However, France has just introduced new laws which oblige employers to consider the environmental implications of business decisions affecting the workforce, so things could be about to change.
How can businesses help tackle climate change?
There are small steps employers can take to tackle climate change. These include:
- Reviewing staff policies, e.g. hybrid working to reduce travel and bike to work schemes
- Making adjustments to workplaces, e.g. reducing the use of air-con and switching to renewable energy
- Putting the onus on employees to adjust their behaviours, such as introducing recycling systems, setting a limit on business travel and encouraging online meetings, or offering mileage allowances for cycling to a meeting
Is climate change a protected belief?
Some employees will take the issue of climate change more seriously than others, and this will undoubtedly have an effect on the workplace.
In the case of Grainger v Nicholson 2021, Mr Nicholson brought a claim for religion or belief discrimination against his employer after being made redundant. He argued that his stated belief about climate change was a ‘philosophical belief’ and that he should not be discriminated against for it. This affected many aspects of his daily life, including the way he travelled, what he ate and how he worked.
The employment tribunal agreed that Mr Nicholson’s belief was indeed protected under the Equality Act 2010.
This finding could lead to workers claiming discrimination if they consider they have been singled out or dismissed as a result of their belief in climate change.
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