Originally published in the Sunday National (Scotland), 21st November 2021
Despite advancing some of the climate emergency agenda, COP26 has left much still on the table to chew over for another year while climate breakdown continues; the outcomes of the Glasgow Climate Summit remain relatively tepid and may in time be found to fall short of the climate emergency’s need for action.
Whereas the summit itself has had mixed reviews, the conference itself appears to have gone without a hitch, with the host enjoying many positive diplomatic engagements burnishing its global credentials in the new post-Brexit reality.
The score card is in, but to whom it should be addressed is another question? The host itself is contested depending on who you ask, and resolving that question might be more complicated than the text of the Glasgow Climate Pact itself.
Doubtless, were predictions of COP-chaos realised then surely all eyes would be on Holyrood as provider of much of the hosting capacity; but on the wider leadership aspects of hosting, where do the respective governments sit?
Events such as COP are international political arenas where issues are thrashed out through discussion, symbolism, and negotiation. The role of host, therefore, provides a significant responsibility and benefit, with many so-called ‘soft power’ wins to be had; something both the UK and Scottish Governments have been keenly aware and hopeful to seize upon.
From the UK government perspective, hot off the heels of G7 in Cornwall and in advance of a flurry of applications for any and all international events in the political and sporting world, COP26 provides a chance to display post-Brexit credentials of global power and relevance.
The Scottish Government is not a party to the Conference but is usually engaged in climate policy at other UN Climate Summits and is provider of much of the logistics and hosting functions at COP26. The climate summit offers an opportunity to showcase Scotland to the world, and to perhaps show itself what it can achieve in the world.
There is much diligent work behind the scenes by civil servants and key workers in local government and public services, and even cooperation between governments away from the party political boxing, though the efforts are often symbolised by high-level presence and outcomes.
Despite claims made in now familiar boast and bombast from the Prime Minister just a year ago, COP26 was neither ‘awash with Union Jacks’ nor was it a no-go zone for Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. Curiously, it was in fact Johnson and his ‘Global Britain’ effort which lacked his supposed ‘vim and vigour’.
Johnson himself featured a light-touch presence at COP, with few appearances dogged with criticism. First, for his lack of Covid-etiquette failing to wear a mask while sitting by the elderly national treasure Sir David Attenborough. Secondly, bemusement at his bizarre judgement to use up valuable time in the international spotlight to settle domestic debates by declaring to the world that ‘the UK is not a corrupt country’. Finally, his Downing Street faux pas recalling the ‘Edinburgh Summit’ seemed to epitomise a lacklustre showing.
There is no obvious explanation for the about-turn on Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ aspirations, other than, perhaps, the now decades-old familiar gap between Johnson’s bombast and effort has once again reared its head? In terms of the UK Government’s own political aims, it seems to have squandered its moment under the global spotlight.
In contrast, Scotland and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s agenda has looked rather as you would expect the leader of the COP host country to be: welcoming dignitaries to her official residence, harnessing culture to form bonds, being seen, and seeking to influence. By most metrics, she has been found to have ‘played a blinder’, with wide praise and showering reviews in international press and global political circles.
Peculiarly, such an assessment was not to be found in some quarters of the Scottish media, much of that parochial coverage questioned whether or not Scotland’s leader should be meeting and forming bonds with international figures, rather than questioning why the British Prime Minister was not.
Such engagements are the currency of international relations, and are pursued by both sides of ‘the photo’. So, the fact that such prominent figures want to be seen engaging with Scotland and its leader should be seen as highly positive for our nation’s reach and impact.
Scotland already benefits from a strong internationally renowned culture and an economic composition which is much more international than often celebrated. In turn, our political character is increasingly understood and sympathised with, and especially so closest to home in the EU.
Whilst this ‘Irn-Bru diplomacy’ will not change Scotland’s fortunes overnight, neither should the impact of building friendly and productive relationships over time be under-estimated. These strives help Scotland to be seen, heard, and thought of, and those are all-important ingredients of a successful country that can shape and influence beyond its borders, no matter its constitutional direction.
Regardless of its hosting status, the experience has boosted Scotland’s visibility and confidence; it has shown all its people that we are a country with a story to tell and with a global audience that wants to hear it. Time will tell whether COP26 has delivered for the world, as it has for Scotland.