COP 28 Insight: Shaun Johnson’s Global View on Climate Action 

With Suzan Taha

With COP 28 now concluded, LegalcommunityMENA had the opportunity to sit down with Shaun Johnson (pictured), Group Chief Legal Officer at Beeah Group, a trailblazer in sustainability and digitalization. 

With over 24 years of global legal expertise, and also currently serving as Chairman of IPFA Middle East) and on IPFA’s Global Board, Johnson offers his insights into the critical role of law in steering climate action and sustainable development. Join us in this exclusive interview as we explore the legal intricacies of navigating a net-zero future at the forefront of COP28. 

As Group Chief Legal Officer for Beeah Group, how does the legal team contribute to Beeah’s commitment to a net-zero future, and what challenges do you encounter in aligning legal strategies with environmental goals? How does Beeah Group contribute to the UAE’s net zero ambitions   and what projects and innovations can we expect from Beeah in the pursuit of sustainability goals? 

Beeah is pioneer across many sectors in the region and sustainability and digitalization is in our DNA in everything we do.   For example,  our ‘Waste to Energy’ facility became operational in 2023 and puts us on track to achieve 100% landfill waste diversion in the Emirate of Sharjah in 2024.  At COP28, we just announced a slew groundbreaking projects including a new ‘super green hydrogen from waste’ facility (which produces carbon negative hydrogen);  a new solar park built over a closed, capped and remediated landfill which is no longer used but will now generate 120 MW of energy; and launched a ‘voluntary recycling credits’ built in the blockchain that creates a global standard to incentivize companies to offset their waste related activities.   

For the Beeah Legal team this means that we absolutely need to be involved in every aspect of the Group’s business.  Due to the pioneering nature of what we do in our company, many of the things the BEEAH Legal team get involved in are new or emerging and there may not be any market standards or precedents for us to look to for guidance. So one of the main challenges becomes how to ensure we maintain the legal discipline and rigour from a compliance and contractual  perspective whilst being dynamic and agile enough to balancing the objectives of our internal stakeholders, JV partners, investors, clients and suppliers.  In some ways this can be seen as a challenge but it is also one of the most stimulating aspects of the job when you get to work on such exciting projects that will make a difference to society. 

You’ve worked across various sectors, including utilities, transport, education, and health. How do you approach legal strategies that not only comply with regulations but actively contribute to the just transition to a net-zero future? 

My legal strategy is to “foster, not frustrate”.   Each business wants to ‘do the deal’ so it’s our role as lawyers to enable them to do so correctly with robust commercial contracts whilst complying with all relevant laws, rules and regulations. The paradox is that if we are doing our job correctly, we may be perceived as ‘blockers’ because the business thinks we over complicate matters or make things difficult. Our profession trains us to think about all possible scenarios (positive and negative) so we need to be pragmatic and practical in how we apply this to our business and not frustrate them with low probability complexities, but put in place appropriate legal safeguards that protects and fosters the development and growth of that business.    

That is our starting point for the Beeah Legal team but we also look for ways to assist the net-zero transition by creating value and positive impact through the work we do. For example, some of the ways we contribute to the net zero transition is to help structure innovative financing models (such as ‘green bonds or ‘’blended finance’) that will unlock new and emerging technologies ‘green projects’ or initiatives. Another example is through the KYC process with partners and/or our supply chain as we help evaluating their ESG policies (‘green credentials’) and their sustainable practices.  Similarly, when evaluating and selecting our own external legal counsel to assist us in our work, we ask firms about their own decarbonization strategies, their carbon footprint and the supply chain they work with as those are the kinds of law firms we want to do business with because those values align with ours as a company.  One of the themes coming out of the law focused COP events was that we will see more and more KYC compliance checks include sustainable practices as mandatory in the core benchmark criteria or evaluation criteria for selection.  

Given your role as a non-executive director on IPFA’s global board and Chairman of IPFA in the Middle East, how does IPFA contribute to fostering collaboration and thought leadership in the realm of climate action?  

IPFA (formerly known as the international project finance association) is a non-profit global association that connects, educates and empowers professionals from all disciplines involved in infrastructure and energy projects (legal, financial, technical, commercial) from both the the public and private sectors. At the global board level of IPFA, we discuss not just the strategic direction and governance of the organization itself, but what trends our corporate membership base are experiencing, what they would like to see and how can facilitate and deliver as an organization. One of our key objectives is to facilitate knowledge sharing and best practices on net zero and climate action for sustainable development across our membership globally. We do this through various platforms, such as webinars, podcasts, roundtables, publications, events, and training programs.  In the lead-up to COP28 we established an energy transition network for our members that focused on sustainable and resilient economies, protection of biodiversity and decarbonization.    

In my role as Chairman of IPFA Middle East, we have the opportunity to focus on the region and deliver events on clean energy and the energy transition so that is what we do.  For example, in 2023 IPFA Middle East arranged events on green hydrogen; leveraging PPPs for a Net Zero Future’’ and navigating the GCC’s renewables market’’. One of the aspects I love about the development of infrastructure and energy in the Middle East is the huge multitude of greenfield projects and emerging sectors due to so much positive and political ambition to develop them in this region.   My aspiration for IPFA Middle East in 2024 is to host an infrastructure forum that looks at the clean energy transition and how infrastructure and energy projects can move the net-zero agenda forward. 

As an accredited ‘Certified Director’ from the GCC Board of Director’s Institute, how do you see corporate governance intersecting with climate action, and what advice do you have for legal professionals navigating the evolving landscape of sustainability governance? 

Boards have a duty to build in sufficient awareness and capacity training for their directors and senior management on ESG principles (if they haven’t already). Some climate related disclosures are voluntary but now many jurisdictions are considering making them mandatory. So boards will need to oversee the integration of sustainability into their corporate strategy and risk management and to ensure high standards of transparency in climate-related reporting.  This will extend down to the supply chains that they use.  There is a moral obligation on companies now in today’s corporate world, and the environmental and reputational risks of not doing so can have significant repercussions. My advice for legal professionals navigating the evolving landscape of sustainability governance is to stay updated on the emerging trends, best practices, regulations and possible sanctions as well as gauging the ‘corporate mood’. Lawyers should be proactive in advising their clients (or if in-house, advising their board) on how to integrate climate considerations into the company’s governance structures, operating processes and reporting disclosures.  

In your mentorship role to junior lawyers, how do you emphasize the importance of legal professionals’ active involvement in climate discussions?? 

Lawyers have to stay relevant with modern developments in society.  Whether you are in-house or whether you are in private practice you have to be cognizant of these developments because they all have legal implications.  For example, whether it is the regulation of cryptocurrencies, building regulatory frameworks for the use of AI or whether it is climate change, we cannot ignore it.  Those that seek to learn more and educate themselves on these topics will become part of the collective discussion which will influence and shape how the legal profession can contribute and guide society fairly and equitably. 

As an active public speaker, what messages do you often convey regarding the legal community’s responsibility in driving climate action, and how can lawyers amplify their impact on the global stage during events like COP28? 

I have attended a number of law related COP28 events and the one common theme was for the legal profession to speak as a collective and to act as a collective.  The profession as a whole has to uphold itself to very high standards and part of those standards should now include climate action and environmental considerations.  I was invited to speak at a COP28 event called the ‘Climate Law and Governance Day’ hosted by Middlesex University, Cambridge University and University of Dubai where we delved into Net Zero Legal Frameworks to Enable Climate Neutral Investment and Finance.  As an in-house lawyer, I feel one of the things we need to be able to do collectively is make better investment decisions incorporating climate concerns and the decarbonization agenda.   

Lawyers can amplify their impact in so many ways because the legal community has a unique role and expertise in shaping and implementing the legal regulatory and policy frameworks that enable and support climate action. We can provide guidance and advice on adaptation measures for higher corporate standards to achieve net-zero and where thisfalls short, we can advise on how to mitigate the legal risks and uncertainties associated with climate change impacts. We can participate in the official negotiations and consultations as delegates, observers, or advisors. We can network to build relationships with other professionals and stakeholders from different sectors and across regions, to share best practices and to learn from those that do. We can use platforms for dialogue and cooperation between public and private actors on climate action and sustainable development. We can advise on enhancing transparency and accountability on climate action and sustainable development through reporting, disclosure, verification, and enforcement. We can use our analytical abilities through an agile approach to help leverage and mobilize finance and investment for infrastructure and energy though innovative ‘green bonds’ and ‘blended finance’. And we can promote and protect human rights, social justice, and environmental justice in the context of climate action and sustainable development. 

We have the skills.  We have a voice.   We need to use it. 

About Shaun Johnson

He currently serves as the Group Chief Legal Officer at Beeah Group, bringing with him a wealth of international experience as a General Counsel and C-suite executive, spanning over 24 years. His diverse background includes collaboration with investors, private developers, and the public sector across the Middle East, the UK, and Australia. Johnson has demonstrated his expertise in various services and sectors, including utilities, transport, education, health, and investment funds. 

In addition to his role at Beeah Group, Johnson holds the position of non-executive director on IPFA’s global board and serves as the Chairman of IPFA in the Middle East. As a professionally qualified solicitor in both England and Australia, Johnson is actively engaged as a public speaker at professional events. His commitment to professional development is evident through his role as a formal mentor to numerous junior lawyers, highlighting the importance he places on continuous growth, training, and mentoring.