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The wrangling over COP26

Writing: Adam Losekoot

Given the recent postponement of the COP26 summit which was due to take place in Glasgow in November of this year, we now have an opportunity to take a closer look at what the initial plans for this event were and how these have been influenced by the tense relationship between the Scottish and UK governments. It is of no surprise to anyone to hear that Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson aren’t exactly close friends. They hail from vastly differing places on the political spectrum and only one of them has been repeatedly fired for deceiving the public and their employers. However, world leaders who disagree with each other should still be able to cooperate on issues both great and small. That is what makes the preparations for COP26 so galling to read about.

The entire process has been riddled with disputes as each side accuses the other of playing politics with the single most important issue of our lifetimes.

The former President of COP26, Claire O’Neill, claimed that the Scottish government had ‘stolen’ a booking for the Glasgow Science Centre which the UK government had made several months prior. In the response to a recent Freedom of Information request we discovered that they had indeed both been wanting the same venue, the Scottish government confirming it as early as November of 2019 whilst Michael Gove didn’t bring up use of the venue until a phone call with the former Finance Minister, Derek Mackay, in January of this year. An offer has since been made by the Scottish government to share the Science Centre and after this was rejected, they offered to hand it over to the UK government on the condition that another, suitable venue be found for the events and displays which the Scottish Government intend to host.

We then discovered that the UK government was looking at the possibility of moving COP to London, though a spokesman for the Prime Minister claimed that the intention was still for the postponed event to be held in Glasgow. However, it certainly wouldn’t be out of character for him to change his mind. Furthermore, when O’Neill suggested to the PM that the First Minister (who has been a guest at the last three COP summits) be given a formal role, it was robustly denied. A witness told The Sun that he said “I’m not being driven out of Scotland by that bloody Wee Jimmy Krankie woman” – an allegation which Johnson’s spokesperson denies. He has also been reported as saying that he doesn’t want Scotland’s First Minister anywhere near the summit being held in her own country.

The above series of events forced the Scottish Greens to weigh in at one point, complaining about the PM’s obsession with union flags rather than constructively cooperating on COP, their leader Patrick Harvie even suggested that Johnson’s real focus was “provoking a spat with the Scottish government”. They have warned both administrations against descending into petty squabbles over the finer details of such a significant summit, fearing a “territorial bun fight”.

It is still unclear who is going to foot the bill for the security costs which are expected to be anything between £200 million and £250 million – something Police Scotland simply cannot afford to cover themselves. Suffice to say, a delay is probably the best thing that could have happened, neither administration appeared ready to host such a significant summit.

Claire O’Neill held the post as President of COP26 for only half a year and was removed from her position in January after criticising both the UK and Scottish governments for having lacklustre approaches to tackling climate change as well as suggesting that the Prime Minister did not understand climate change, nor the severity of the climate crisis. It took weeks to appoint O’Neill’s successor who comes in the form of Alok Sharma (notably he was not the UK government’s first choice, coming in after David Cameron and William Hague - among others - refused the position), currently the secretary of state for Business, Energy and Industry in Boris Johnson’s cabinet. Sharma is somewhat of an unknown factor, fairly new to the front bench though he held the portfolio for international development between July of last year and February. Sharma is in an interesting position, as both COP president and business secretary he is perhaps better situated to enact domestic change than his predecessor, however concerns have been raised by a number of groups, notably Friends of the Earth about whether he will be able to juggle his commitments, citing fears of a potential “part-time president”. He will be responsible for ensuring that the UK is setting a strong example by tackling the climate crisis at home as well as engaging constructively with foreign governments and encouraging other nations to commit to hard hitting targets, building on the significant but flimsy foundations laid in Paris in 2015. The new COP president almost merits a character analysis all of his own, with a varied voting record on climate issues and who has previously publicly supported and opposed the expansion of Heathrow airport. Whether or not he can rise to the challenging but vital responsibilities of his post, remains to be seen.

The UK’s current target is to reduce emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Contrary to this, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) suggests adopting a UK-wide net-zero target for 2050, believing that this will not cause much more damage to the economy than the current 80% target which has been legislated for. According to the CCC, the UK’s emissions were only 44% below 1990 levels in 2018. This is a matter for concern because the more we decrease our emissions, the harder it becomes to decrease them further. We have already mostly phased out coal consumption in order to achieve change on the scale which is necessary to mitigate the consequences of our species’ actions to even the IPCCs best case scenario of only 1.5℃. As we reduce our reliance upon fossil fuels we must find sources of energy to take up the slack, until these are economically viable no more substantial progress can be made. The UK is slightly over half way to its legislated target, less than half way towards the target recommended by the CCC and not remotely near the target necessary to limit global temperature increase to only 2℃. The UK government did meet the requirements of the first three Carbon budgets but they are not expected to achieve the next two carbon budgets and not one of the CCC’s 33 ‘priority areas’ appear to be reducing their exposure and vulnerability to the risks posed by climate change.

The Scottish government boasts some of the most extreme climate legislation and targets in the world, setting a net-zero emissions target for 2045 and a 90% reduction in emissions by 2040. This of course may not be going far enough. It is believed there are approximately 16 years of current emissions rates until we reach the IPCC’s model for a 2℃ warming. The Scottish government’s targets are based on evidence for feasible change from the CCC and are subject to regular review; however, there is not enough physical substance in the plans to achieve this. There is a great deal of information about targets, interim targets and the principles of the ‘just transition’ scheme but so far it stops short of laying out concrete plans for how to achieve said targets.

The Scottish Government was due to publish its climate action plan within the last week, however it has been announced that the plan will not be released until an unspecified time later this year. The environment secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, cited the coronavirus pandemic and a need for "a bit of time to ensure the policies and proposals that we do put forward will reflect the new economic and social realities post-pandemic". Holyrood is very good at discussing climate change but sometimes risks being caught up in bureaucracy. This is not to suggest they have not also made significant progress, laying the foundations for much of the necessary work in the form of the new Scottish National Investment Bank. The government claims that: “The Bank’s primary mission will be to support Scotland’s transition to net zero carbon emissions through a range of debt and equity products.” Though it will be some time before it is ready to do this, with the Scottish Government planning to invest £2 billion over the next 10 years in order to capitalise the bank.

In 2019, renewable sources of energy accounted for 90% of Scotland’s gross electricity consumption. This is of course an excellent sign of progress yet emissions still remain worryingly high. Transport needs to become more environmentally friendly. Pre-covid that meant using public transport where possible, but we are now being urged to avoid these forms of transportation where possible until the current crisis has passed. As such a further focus on remote working until low-emissions (or preferably zero-emissions) vehicles are economically viable may be necessary across the UK.

Officially, COP is organised by the UK government and Holyrood doesn’t have much, if any influence; the lead up to the event has been fraught with disputes over various details. This is deeply concerning. If the two administrations are unable to put their constitutional disagreements and general dislike for each other to the side, then it does not bode well for the future of this already strained relationship or the exponentially more important issue of the UK’s response to the climate crisis. In their statement to the Scottish government, the CCC said that “Scotland’s ability to deliver its net-zero target is contingent on action taken in the UK, and vice versa”. The road to COP26 looks intensely challenging, and with so many difficulties here at home it remains unclear whether or not those in charge of the event will be able to create and steer the international agreements and commitments which we so desperately need to come from this summit.

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