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Approaching the summit: Can Glasgow's staging of COP26 help the city tackle some problems closer to home?

Susan Aitken photographed at Glasgow City Chambers Picture: Anna Moffat

Approaching the summit: Can Glasgow's staging of COP26 help the city tackle some problems closer to home?

When Glasgow was chosen to host the UN’s Climate Change Conference, it was a decision which led to some raised eyebrows in London.

The awarding of the 26th annual session of the Conference of the Parties (COP26 for short) to Scotland’s largest city was questioned by those who assumed the English capital would be the natural backdrop for such a prestigious event.

A suggestion was even put around journalists that Glasgow was only chosen because the preferred venue, the ExCeL, was already booked, although it was later claimed the London venue was only looked at as a “contingency”.

In the 18 months since the decision was announced, a lot has happened. The ExCeL, for example, has gone from being a conference centre to a Nightingale hospital and now a makeshift COVID vaccination point. 

President Donald Trump, who took the United States out of the Paris climate change agreement, is gone and has been replaced by a president who has put the environment at the top of his agenda.

One of President Joe Biden’s first acts in the White House was to re-enter the Paris accord, formally committing one of the world’s largest polluters to helping keep the global temperature rise this century at less than 2C above pre-industrial levels.

While the eyes of the world have been trained on dealing with the pandemic, the significance of the COP has not diminished.

A further indication of the United States’ renewed determination on the issue was the appointment of former Secretary of State John Kerry as a special envoy on the matter.

Such is the potentially cataclysmic scenario facing us from man-made climate change that Kerry has described the Glasgow conference as the world’s “last best chance”.

It’s a view shared by Susan Aitken, the leader of Glasgow City Council and the woman charged with helping deliver the COP.

Even in normal times, Aitken’s job is a massive one. Running a city where poverty and ill health were long-term challenges even before COVID, she now has to contend with not only the pandemic but guaranteeing the success of a summit seen by many as our planet’s last real hope.

But with COVID continuing to place a heavy burden on the UK and the NHS, could the climate conference yet be cancelled for a second year running?

“That, ultimately, would be a decision of the UN,” Aitken says. “But if we take a backwards step in terms of the pandemic over the next few months, of course it’s a possibility. No one can rule that out.”

Aitken says that while the conference’s “blue zone” at the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) becomes UN sovereign territory for the duration of November’s conference, the top priority will be the health of the Glasgow public, with COVID testing likely to be put in place for visiting dignitaries and heads of state.

“If I were a betting woman, which I’m not, I would bet there will be an in-person blue zone and negotiation but with much more of a hybrid wider event. So perhaps not so many people coming physically to the city as we might have anticipated pre-COVID, but still a very significant size of event.”

There’s a general consensus that for the negotiations to be successful, they have to be undertaken in person and not remotely.

Aitken says that is borne out by the Paris negotiations of 2015 (COP21) where world leaders took an active role in overseeing their officials.

“Anecdotally, one of the reasons the outcome of the Paris negotiations was so successful and they made the progress they did, was because Barack Obama was literally leaning over the shoulders of his negotiators and telling them to change a word, move a semi-colon…That absolute hands-on leadership was crucial.”

And speaking of leaders, Aitken, an SNP councillor, believes First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should be front and centre. 

“One of the problems the UK has, and I think they’re realising this,” she says, “is that their COP team is very male. 

“I think it would be to Boris’s benefit if he were to understand that in Scotland we have a woman leader who is very well-respected internationally for the leadership she has shown on climate change. It would do him no harm at all to have a bit of reflected glory from Nicola on that.”

While the event is being staged by the United Nations, Aitken says there are partnerships in place that allow for both “non-state actors and sub-national governments” to be involved. 

“Given that Scotland is part of a partnership (alongside the UK) and the event is being hosted in Scotland, it makes total sense to me that there should be a Scottish presence in the blue zone and clearly the First Minister would be that presence.”

The hosting of the COP has meant even greater scrutiny being placed on the UK Government’s actions as it attempts to reach an ambitious target for net zero emissions by 2050.

Earlier this month, environmentalists and leading climate change scientists criticised a decision to allow a new colliery to be built in Cumbria – the first new deep coal mine in the UK for 30 years.

James Hansen, the former Nasa scientist who helped raise awareness of climate change in the 1980s, said Prime Minister Boris Johnson risked being “vilified” around the world for not putting a stop to the development.

Aitken says the UK Government’s position on the colliery is “bizarre” and risks undermining its message ahead of the Glasgow summit.

“I don’t understand why they would do that,” she says. “It’s, to put it mildly, mixed messages. If they’re serious about reaching their carbon reduction targets and net zero targets…the UK Government, as the host country, they have to set the standard, they have to show leadership. 

“I don’t understand how they’re going to deliver net zero by 2050, never mind an earlier date, if they’re opening coal mines – it makes no sense to me whatsoever. It’s a bizarre approach.”

Aitken says that if a similar development were to be mooted in her own city, it would not be welcome.

Despite the long-lasting economic challenges being created by the pandemic, she believes

Glasgow has to look past the sort of heavy industries it relied on in the past.

She says: “Yes, they provided jobs, but also made the land of our city toxic. Glasgow has more vacant and derelict land than any other UK city and that is a direct legacy of our heavy industrial past.

“(As a city) we have to have the courage to say no to things. We don’t just want any jobs. We’re very clear in Glasgow that the inward investment and jobs we want for the city are about fair work…We want investments that will actually contribute to the quality of place…We don’t have to just accept all comers, we have the opportunity to do better.”

And while the current focus is on climate change, Glasgow continues to battle with another existential threat which has proved just as intractable: poverty.

Since Aitken’s party came to power at Holyrood in 2007, it has struggled to get to grips with deprivation, with life expectancy actually going backwards in some parts of the country.

Asked which is the bigger priority for Glasgow, tackling climate change or tackling poverty, Aitken doesn’t miss a beat: “They’re indivisible,” she says.

“This has been the message that I’ve been speaking about in lots of events over the last few months.

“We have to tackle the two things hand in hand. The climate emergency has to be addressed and, as a society, we’re going to have to spend a lot of money in doing that.

“When we do that, we need to make sure we deliver benefit for people living in the most difficult circumstances.”

If the job was already difficult, the pandemic has just made it a whole lot harder, pushing up unemployment and leaving previously healthy people with long-term health problems.

“We need to take both the challenge and opportunity that the climate emergency presents us with, and which now has another layer of challenge on top of it due to COVID, to address our deep-seated and long-standing social and physical challenges in cities like Glasgow. Our message is that if we can do it in Glasgow, then it can be done anywhere.” 

Some of Glasgow’s plans for doing its part in the fight against climate change are ambitious and befitting of the city’s status as the summit host.

Earlier this month Aitken used a Holyrood virtual conference to reveal that plans for a new Glasgow Metro are being taken forward by Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland.

According to Transport Scotland, the Metro could include one or more of bus rapid transit, tram, light rail and / or metro rail as the city works to get travellers out of their cars and onto public transport.

There will also be much work to do to convert Glasgow’s ageing housing stock, particularly its Victoria tenements, to move away from gas central heating. 

But despite the challenges, Aitken believes that, in one respect, the job of the delegates at COP26 has just got a bit easier.

She describes Trump’s defeat in November’s election as a “game-changer” when it comes to securing some sort of consensus in Glasgow.

“It’s really important; it’s pivotal, actually,” she says. “Virtually the first thing President Biden did was to appoint a special envoy for climate change. There was a real sense of that being a game-changer. 

“If the United States had either not been taking part in COP or had been actively seeking to undermine it, there certainly would’ve been much bigger barriers to it being a success. If the United States are not part of the solutions, then the solutions are not going to be as effective – that’s the bottom line.”

For Glasgow, the stakes could not be higher. A breakthrough at the COP could see the city’s name become synonymous with a historic fightback, an epochal moment where the interests of our planet and of future generations were finally put above all else.

So, does Aitken think there’s any truth in the suggestion her city only got the nod because everything in London was already booked up?

“No, that’s not the reason. We were chosen as the venue because the SEC fulfils all of the criteria and it’s a world-class venue.

“There may well be people in London going ‘Glasgow? But London’s the important place’. I’m sure there’s a little bit of a patronising view that we couldn’t possibly have got this on our own merits, but believe me, we did.” 

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