Editor-in-Chief Lucy Dunn interviewed the first minister this morning at COP26, discussing the conference, its representation of youth, and how Glasgow really is the best city in the world.
Scotland has one of the world’s most ambitious net-zero targets, aiming to cut emissions to this extent by 2045, five years ahead of the rest of the UK. The location of Glasgow as the host city for the 26th Conference of the Parties was fitting in many ways, however the hosting of the climate conference in the thriving city was met with mixed opinions from its residents. As Glasgow University is the first minister’s alma mater, and as Nicola is a Glasgow resident herself, The Glasgow Guardian was particularly interested to discuss her insight into the progress the conference has made in the last fortnight.
I bumped into Nicola Sturgeon in the long, cream-tiled hallway of the COP26 Blue Zone; I had been hurrying to a talk taking place at some of the country-ran exhibition stalls, and almost missed her in her grape-coloured co-ord. I slowed my pace, falling into step with her and her advisors as they paced the corridor. She was heading to a meeting, and as she entered the room, I took my chance. Introducing myself to her advisor, I made my demands. Not her “press person”, she gave me an email and sent me on my way.
I wasn’t sure if my luck would hold out, but on Friday morning, I found myself being escorted by said “press person” to the VIP suite in the OVO Hydro where ScotGov’s base was. When the door opened, Nicola was being shown something on a phone, cup of tea in hand. The atmosphere was relaxed and light-hearted, and the nerves I’d been feeling relaxed – slightly.
Once seated across from the first minister, declining the offer of tea myself, not wanting to either impose for too long, or to chance a horrific mid-interview blunder by accidentally dousing myself in hot liquid, I launched into our discussion.
Referencing how much has been going on outside of the conference, the tension surrounding COP26 has been both felt and voiced by students, most of whom have had their daily lives disrupted by the road closures and police presence. Emphasised by the “blah blah blah” discourse of Greta Thunberg, many feel disconnected from the discussions happening inside of the conference. On this background, I asked Nicola, I would be curious to hear what you think the legacy of the summit will be?
“We’ll see that later today, or maybe tomorrow or Sunday,” she replied, “but I think Glasgow will deliver progress. The city has more than played its part, and really risen to the occasion. I’m answering this as a politician in a bit of a strange position, as the leader of a government that is not around the negotiating table; I’ve almost got one foot in here, and one foot out with the people lobbying for this process to go further.
“There always should be a tension between activists and governments because that’s what drives progress, and there’s no doubt that without the voices of activists – and young activists in particular – we wouldn’t have moved as far as we have. But you’ve always got to have a process, and it’s that process that turns the ambition into reality. I can understand why people feel very frustrated because it’s not going fast enough. The leaders of big countries represented here, with the right political will, could deliver a lot more than what they’re going to deliver. I feel frustrated about that, and so I can understand how young activists feel.”
“The leaders of big countries represented here, with the right political will, could deliver a lot more than what they’re going to deliver.”
Although there has been a lot of discussion at COP26, young people prefer seeing action, I emphasised. “Once the conference has finished, what tangible changes will occur in Scotland, particularly in the next 12 months?”
Proudly patriotric, Nicola nodded: “In a sense, Scotland is already on this journey anyway. COP26 is here in Glasgow, but that’s not what’s triggering climate action in Scotland. Scotland has halved its emissions. Our emissions are going down – so we’re on that journey – but there are things that we’re going to see accelerate. We’re going to see the acceleration to renewable forms of energy, in terms of heating of houses, and we’re going to see more electric cars on our roads… We’re going to see progress in Scotland accelerate, because we have to accelerate progress.”
“We’re going to see progress in Scotland accelerate, because we have to accelerate progress.”
Bringing it back to the student aspect, I decided to voice something that had been playing on my mind. “I’m delighted that The Glasgow Guardian have been accredited here,” I offered, hesitantly, “but I have noticed that I am one of the youngest here, and there really aren’t that many young people at the conference at all. Our generation is going to be most impacted by both the economic consequences of these discussions, and also climate change itself. So, on that level, what do you think COP26 could have done to better engage young people?”
“I think we need to see different interests around the negotiating table; for example, with governments like Scotland, which is not a ‘national government’ in the United Nations sense – but it does have a big role to play,” Nicola said, emphasising the fact that, whilst COP26 was being held in Glasgow, Scotland was not allowed a part in making the big decisions. “I think these processes need to be much more inclusive,” she continued. “The voice of young people is what is driving the climate movement, there’s no doubt about it; they’re doing that from the outside largely, and we need to start bringing that in.
“But it’s not just young people: more women need to be involved in these discussions, and the Global South needs to be more involved in these discussions. The power dynamic in COP26 is very much in favour of those with the biggest vested interest to slow down change: big governments, the fossil fuel industry… white, male, middle-aged men.” We both laughed, exchanging a knowing glance. “We need to shift this towards the interest of those who have got the biggest need to accelerate things. That includes people in the countries most immediately affected.
“The power dynamic in COP26 is very much in favour of those with the biggest vested interest to slow down change.”
“Where you are sitting just now – two days ago, a minister from The Marshall Islands sat there. His country will probably be the first to disappear, in not too many years. It will literally sink: the rising sea levels will wash over it. This is not abstract for people.”
It was a poignant note to conclude on. Thinking of the Global South had been sobering for many businesspeople and politicians at the conference and something they tended to brush over with eco-friendly buzzwords. Going back to Glasgow itself, though, I wanted to prod Nicola on the controversy COP26 had brought. “There have been mixed opinions about the hosting of COP26 in Glasgow,” I told her, “On a local level, there has been disruption with transport, travel to and from work and university, and even the housing crisis that many students have seen. Do you think that the benefits of hosting COP26 in Glasgow outweigh the downsides?”
Was there a hint of hesitation? “I think they probably do,” she replied, “though people may not necessarily feel that immediately. If we get a good outcome then frankly the benefits for the planet will outweigh short-term disruption – but I’m not minimising the impact of short-term disruption. I live in Glasgow, so I know what that is like.
“But also there have been benefits to the city, as well. The city has tens of thousands of people in it, and not every business will be benefiting from that – but a lot will. As the first minister, [I know that] the opportunities to showcase this city, and Scotland as a whole, have been massive. Over – possibly – years, we will benefit from this with people deciding ‘I really like Scotland’, and investing: ‘I might want to set up a business there; I might want to move there; I might want to go to university there.’ I think that’s quite hard to quantify. But I think we’ll definitely get a benefit from that.
“As the first minister, [I know that] the opportunities to showcase this city, and Scotland as a whole, have been massive.”
“And, I tell you, I’ve lived in Glasgow since I moved here to go to uni, too many years ago – so this has been my home for most of my life. The number of people (that have run into the hundreds) that have stopped me here to say ‘your city is wonderful’, ‘your people are so friendly’… You know, the city has really done itself proud, and I’m sure there are days where everybody’s moaned about how disrupted it’s been – and I’m not trying to minimise that – but somewhere, even in the grumpiest Glaswegian,” – and despite her formal Edinburgh accommodation in Bute House, I was glad Nicola still considered herself Glasgow-based – “there’s been a bit of pride that we’ve been the centre of the universe for the last two weeks.”
“…somewhere, even in the grumpiest Glaswegian, there’s been a bit of pride that we’ve been the centre of the universe…”
I had to agree with her. I’d met a lot of Londoners in the media centre who hadn’t stopped going on about Glasgow. Not to mention those from “across the pond”. Telling her this, she widened her eyes, gesturing emphatically.
“Not just London – from all over the world! People from Africa, and America… literally across the globe saying: ‘Glasgow is wonderful.'”
Our time in the Hydro’s VIP suite was running out. “My last question,” I posed, “separate from the climate talks themselves: there has been a lot of excitement with the hosting of the conference in Glasgow. What would you say have been both the high and the low points of the summit for you?”
“The low points – first – have been worrying that we wouldn’t get a good enough outcome,” Nicola said, voicing fears that many others had been voicing as the conference was drawing to its close. “As first minister of Scotland at the United Nations conference, though the UK government’s been the official host, we’ve had a lot of responsibility around the logistics, the public health, the policing… There’s been an anxiety every day that something is going to go horribly wrong, that there’s going to be a big incident, or that Covid rates are going to start to spiral – touch wood, I’ve not seen any of that happening so far. So that’s been a constant stress on the whole.
“But the upsides? These have been seeing my city – my home – through the eyes of the rest of the world, and seeing that the rest of the world, on visiting for the first time, have realised that Glasgow really is the best city in the world.”