They set off for COP28 - David Cameron, Rishi Sunak and King Charles - in a squadron of private jets. Picture them, high on moral purpose, spreading contrails across the canopy of the earth.

Behind them lay a landscape strewn with false hopes and broken promises.  Cameron entered Downing Street pledging to provide “the greenest government ever,” but his climate change achievements -  reductions in emissions and investment in clean energy - were soon offset by the slashing of environmental budgets and new tax breaks for North Sea oil and gas firms.

As for Sunak: where to start? He signalled his direction of travel by removing the UK COP26 president Alok Sharma from his Cabinet. Since then, he has recast himself as chief petrol head, performing a series of handbrake turns, including the postponement of the phaseout of non-electric cars, and vowing to “max out” the North Sea.

Humza Yousaf flew to COP28, too, along with Net Zero Secretary Màiri McAllan, who last month told Holyrood’s Climate Action Summit it was “not the right time” to publish the Scottish government’s new plan on how to meet its emission targets. When Yousaf became First Minister, his government had already been warned its ambition to reach Net Zero by 2045 was in danger of being rendered meaningless by the absence of any clear strategy. More recently, his mantra of a “just transition” to renewable energy was shattered by the absence of any apparent contingency for the closure of Grangemouth oil refinery.

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In front of UK delegates lay the United Arab Emirates - a landscape seeped in oil and gas - and a COP28 president, Sultan Ahmed Al-jaber, who is chief executive of the country’s national oil company Adnoc. Al-jaber denies suggestions he planned to abuse his position to strike better deals with foreign governments. Still, for a summit aimed at securing a global cut in fossil fuels to be led by the head of a company expanding its oil production capacity is sub-optimal.

Sure, the pledging of more than $400m to a Loss and Damage fund for victims of climate change is a landmark development, though the US’s paltry $17.5m contribution is frankly embarrassing. But it took 32 years to get there. Thirty two years. The snail’s pace of progress is head-bangingly frustrating.

COP28 is taking place before an Adam Curtis-esque backdrop of disasters: melting ice caps, wildfires, hurricanes, floods. The evidence is there for all to see. Eight years have passed since world leaders agreed it was vital to prevent the earth exceeding two degrees celsius above pre-industrial times. They know 2023 is set to be the hottest year on record. They know that on November 17 the global temperature briefly tipped over the two degrees threshold for the first time. And yet even those - perhaps especially those -  whose countries have benefited most from the exploitation of the planet’s resources have to be poked and prodded and guilt-tripped into every concession. Their good intentions fade in the glare of forthcoming elections. Meanwhile, they crack down on protesters who have lost patience with their prevarication.

This same disconnect is evident when it comes to tackling poverty. Last month, I chaired a  Glasgow Centre for Population Health seminar at which Dr David Walsh and Professor Gerry McCartney set out Scotland’s widening health inequalities in the starkest of terms. Walsh showed how life and healthy life expectancies had started to fall in our most deprived communities as a result of austerity. It was a travesty, they agreed, that such disparities should exist in a country as wealthy as the UK. 

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Far from being intractable - as those of us brought on a diet of “Sick man of Europe” headlines might assume - the problem was eminently fixable if only politicians would act. McCartney outlined some of the solutions. They encompassed public health interventions, though systemic change to address inequalities of wealth and power was paramount.

The potential for change exists. And yet the seminar took place in an atmosphere of despondency. Weeks earlier, the Glasgow Health and Social Care Partnership had threatened to slash the number of community links practitioners based in the city’s Deep End surgeries. It took a concerted campaign to persuade the Scottish government to agree to bridge the funding gap.

And the day before the seminar, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt had told those with long-term health conditions they might lose their benefits if they didn’t take on work. North of the Border, the Scottish child payment has gone some way to mitigate against Westminster’s welfare reforms and the two-child benefits cap, but Yousaf’s council tax freeze - which will benefit the better off - seems to fly in the face of his commitment to progressive taxation.

The Herald: Cop28 delegates

COP28 delegates

It must be demoralising for organisations like the GCPH to understand what needs to be done, to invest time and energy sharing that knowledge, but to so often see politicians fail to act; or, worse still, to act in ways they know will exacerbate rather than improve the situation. What keeps them going? The knowledge that sometimes persistence pays off.

Leaving the seminar, I bumped into Ellie Harrison. Harrison is the force of nature behind Get Glasgow Moving, and Better Buses for Strathclyde, the campaign to bring the region’s buses back into public control.

She wants Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) to re-regulate private bus companies  through ‘franchising’ , allowing it to plan bus routes to connect seamlessly with trains, ferries and Glasgow’s Subway. It could cut fares and deliver one simple, affordable ticket across all transport modes, like Greater Manchester (and most European cities) now do.

On the day I bumped into her, she was upbeat because the powers which enable the franchising to take place will become available tomorrow. But  - like COP28’s Loss and Damage Fund - it has required great persistence to get this far; and she still has a long way to go.

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An accessible and affordable transport network would have myriad advantages, improving public health and reducing emissions. And yet the relevant authorities have dragged their heels.

It took several years for the Transport Act to make its way through Holyrood and another four for the bus powers it contains to come into effect.  Now campaigners are stepping up their effort to persuade SPT to place re-regulation at the heart of its forthcoming regional bus strategy, despite opposition from the private companies.

If SPT decides to proceed, there will be further hurdles to jump, including the creation and auditing of a business plan, a public consultation and winning the approval of an independent panel of experts. And the service will require funding. Greater Manchester managed to secure $1bn to help deliver its Bee Network. Even if SPT goes full steam ahead, Harrison reckons it will be at least another five years before the integrated network becomes a reality.

It seems odd the Scottish government has not accelerated the process given it has set itself a target of 20% fewer car kilometres by 2030 - something that is unlikely to happen unless motorists have a viable alternative. Where is the sense of urgency here? Or at COP28? 

On Friday afternoon, in Dubai, fresh statements were being made and cash pledged. More than 130 countries signed a declaration recognising food production and consumption as an important factor in global warming, while the UAE president Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan announced a $30bn fund for "global climate solutions".  Sunak, too, threw money at the problem of rehabilitating his climate change credentials. But, as the King lamented how “dreadfully far off-track” the world remains from its emission targets, I couldn’t help but wonder if what the planet requires is fewer flash gestures on the international front and more tough decisions on the domestic one.