WE have done rather well as a species. Antibiotics, immunisations, sanitation, warm homes, welfare, art and literature, the internet, human and animal rights, aviation, space exploration and virtual reality, right through to milk made from oats and the humble chocolate bar: we are remarkable.

So remarkable, in fact, that we have come to believe ourselves capable of solving just about any problem.

But events of the last few years have delivered multiple checks on that hubris. Big scary phenomena have become inescapable in our lives. A microscopic virus has brought society as we know it to a near standstill in countries across the world, causing 3.7m reported deaths.

And with global heating, the worst is to come.

For humans, you might call the climate crisis species-defining: an emergency so complex and one engaging such powerful forces that it stretches our ability to understand it, never mind tackle it.

If temperature rises are not checked, we will face flooding, the loss of homes and communities, threats to agriculture and our ability to feed ourselves, mass migration as people flee flooded or drought-stricken areas, species loss, an increase in diseases like malaria, conflagrations in forests and the degradation of seas.

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Looking outside the lounge window here in Edinburgh I see the sun shining and hear the lazy buzzing of bees. The vibe is chilled. The pandemic is not over but thanks to sheer human effort, 75% of adults in the UK have been vaccinated at least once. The Euros are about to start. We can see family and friends again. Optimism is in the air. Absolutely none of us want to have to think about an even bigger unfolding emergency than Covid. But we have no choice.

This year, a summit is due to take place that is arguably the most important global gathering ever. I hope you’ll forgive the Trumpian turn of phrase but COP26 will be at least as significant as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between nuclear-armed superpowers Russia and the US in the 1970s, and the Paris Peace Conference after World War One that led to the controversial Treaty of Versailles and the foundation of the UN’s forerunner, the League of Nations.

Why? Because the shape of all our futures and those of our children and grandchildren depend upon what is agreed at COP26 and how faithfully those commitments are carried out. It will bring together world leaders with the aim of making them commit to immediate radical action swiftly to cut carbon dioxide emissions, in order to keep global temperature rises this century to no more than 1.5 degrees. It’s an endeavour the importance of which cannot be overstated.

By extraordinary luck (or misfortune, depending on how you view its chances of success) it will take place in Scotland.


Being the hosts – and I include both the Scottish and UK governments in that description – carries grave responsibility. The whole point of a global climate summit is to ensure all countries are taking action – no single country or group of countries can solve the problem – but leadership is critical, not just for guiding the talks but for example-setting.

I don’t doubt that either Nicola Sturgeon or Boris Johnson are committed to the principle, but will they show willingness to take tough action to pressure other nations to do the same?

Two stories this week yet again underlined the urgency of the situation. One was from WWF Scotland, warning that 12 iconic species, including the Scottish mountain hare, the puffin and the bumble bee, were in existential danger if temperature rises are not kept to below 1.5 degrees (the global temperature is already 1.1 degree above pre-industrial levels).

Meanwhile, a group of international scientists led by researchers from St Andrews University have found that if carbon dioxide continues to rise at the current rate, it will result in prehistoric levels of heat that humans have never experienced before. Massive sea level rises are anticipated, threatening the homes of one billion people worldwide.

There is worrying context to all of this: that so far, in spite of the historic Paris Agreement of 2015, the global community has failed to halt the rise in climate emissions. The UN stated in 2020 that atmospheric carbon dioxide was at record levels, that climate change is already affecting “life-sustaining systems” and that “transformational action” can no longer be postponed if the Paris Agreement targets are to be met.

Governments are already acting. The decarbonisation of home and business heating will put a dent in emissions, but there is dissonance with the climate change agenda in other respects. One problem is the UK government’s ongoing commitment to continued exploration for new oil and gas reserves in the North Sea, subject to a so-called “climate compatibility test”.

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You can see in this a desire to keep faith with climate commitments and also offer the hope of years of future oil jobs for communities in the north east. But it’s strikingly at odds with the International Energy Agency, the energy watchdog for 29 OECD countries, a body which has typically been close to the oil sector. Last month, the IEA declared that exploitation of new fields must stop this year, though existing fields could continue extraction. Calling the climate emergency “perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced”, its executive director Fatih Birol has pointed to a worrying gap between governments’ rhetoric and action on climate change.

Denmark, which has 55 oil and gas platforms, ended new licensing last year, following France and New Zealand.

Nicola Sturgeon has held back from signalling her opposition to new oil and gas. She has cited the need to protect jobs, but has also signalled the need to take “difficult decisions” in this parliament. Backing an end to new oil and gas exploration would need to be accompanied by commitment to generous investment in retraining as well as support for new investment in the north east.

Ms Sturgeon may have thought her legacy would be defined by independence, as Boris Johnson thought his would be delivering Brexit, but such preoccupations may look rather short-sighted in 20 years’ time and perhaps even in 10 if climate change is not checked.

COP26 will be a defining moment for us all. For it to succeed, the host nations must set the scale of ambition right from the start.

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