Orcadian Column, 04 November 2021

Sitting in the last chance saloon in Glasgow at one minute to midnight feels like an unsettling place to be, even without the tales of ‘rats as big as cats’ stalking the streets.  And, as the world descends on Glasgow for COP26, the stakes could scarcely by higher, particularly for those in the Global South, least responsible for climate change yet most at risk from its effects.

Unlike the earlier Paris Agreement, Glasgow will not see a treaty agreed, but rather a review of the commitments previously made by participants in 2015. With projections that far from keeping global warming to 1.5⁰C above pre-industrial levels, we are currently on course for catastrophic warming of 3⁰C, the next fortnight needs to see far more ambition, greater urgency as well as confirmed action and funding. The time for talking, bluntly, is over.

Statements so far from global leaders, however, have been heavy on rhetoric but rather lighter on detail. Curbs on deforestation offer some hope, but the devil will be in both the detail and actual implementation. Meanwhile, weaning the world off coal is proving as tricky as ever.

The absence of key ‘players’, notably Presidents Putin, Xi and Bolsonaro doesn’t help, either symbolically or on a practical level. While flying in thousands of people to attend a climate conference in the midst of a global pandemic has raised questions, the reality is that difficult decisions are more likely to be taken when those making them can be eyeballed across a table and where arms are close enough to be twisted.

Even so, Health Secretary, Humza Yousaf has admitted that the Scottish Government is bracing itself for a spike in Covid numbers. Meanwhile, Glasgwegians are bracing themselves for a fortnight of major disruption, which is probably unavoidable when hosting an event on this scale, with these levels of security and anticipated public protest.

Even so, strikes affecting staff involved in providing everything from refuse and cleansing services to school catering and even duty solicitors is not making life any easier. Thankfully, the long-running industrial action by Scotrail staff has been called off, but transport services across the city and central belt are under serious pressure.

This, though, is a prestigious moment with the eyes of the world watching. And while important steps have been taken in recent years, there is no doubt that what lies ahead will be - needs to be – much more challenging.

In the run up to COP26, the UK and Scottish governments, like counterparts worldwide, have been talking up their achievements to date.  That is not unreasonable, but should not mask how much more has to be done. Indeed, the Prime Minister arrives in Glasgow having just slashed duty on air fares, while the First Minister voted last week to continue backing a third runway at Heathrow, the biggest polluter in the UK, and announced that far from meeting her targets on renewable heat, things are going backwards.

Scotland’s climate change legislation may or may not be ‘world leading’, but it matters little if statutory targets are not met. Indeed, Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the UK Committee on Climate Change warned this week that Scotland’s emissions reduction target for 2030 may be “over-cooked”.  In other words, plenty for the COP26 hosts to mull over if they wish to be seen to be leading by example.

There are signs of hope, however, not least here in Orkney. Having led the way in the development of renewables, we are seeing innovation locally in how clean energy is used in key areas such as heat and transport, including planes, ferries and electric vehicles. Plans for transitioning from hydrocarbons to clean hydrogen at Flotta are also in the pipeline. There is a lot of learning still to be done, but Orkney is showing how opportunities can be grasped by confronting the climate challenges we face.

And this is important too. No-one should doubt the severity of the situation nor the scale and urgency of what needs done. However, offering hope to people and examples of potential ways forward is often the most effective way of persuading them to act, even as last orders are called in the last chance saloon.

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