COP26: Scotland’s pioneering tradition can help solve the climate crisis
When delegates convene for COP26 next week they will do so in a city that is still, despite the best efforts of planners and developers, defined by buildings more than a century old.
The Victorian and Edwardian eras bequeathed to modern Scotland a set of beautiful, green, highly liveable cities.
Some of this achievement may have been driven by ostentatious philanthropy, but behind this facade lay hard choices about how to tackle environmental and public health crises created by newly industrialised slum cities.
As Scotland seeks to shine on the world stage for the 12 days of the conference, it will struggle to demonstrate how it has managed to live up to this legacy.
The pioneering work of Glasgow Corporation transformed a 19th-century city with a modernising zeal: creating major publicly owned transport, communications and energy networks.
The tap water that COP delegates will drink is still the product of the Loch Katrine system: a project so vast and challenging that it seems impossible today. But in moments of crisis, true progress often involves a backward glance.
Glasgow, a Gaelic metropolis at its core, sings its songs better than most. But it falls far short of the world’s great radical cities, like Barcelona, because it has never had the bravery to match the confidence and levels of investment equivalent to its first great municipal expansion.
It may not be framed as such, but Glasgow City Council’s current plan to create “20-minute neighbourhoods” would, if successfully implemented, return much of the city to a pattern recognisable to the great-grandparents of present-day Glaswegians.
In contrast, responses to climate change are often portrayed as a breathless race for new innovation; but we must learn to frame them as a process of restoration too. Though the Scottish cities of a century ago may have been coal-fired, they now offer a blueprint for a green public realm for all that works for all.
But the patched-up infrastructure of Glasgow is still based on hardware laid down in the days of Empire, and this is part of what will turn the reality of hosting COP into a day-to-day grind. With mass industrial action on the cards too, some may feel that Glasgow’s past has come back to haunt it.
However, in the pressing battle to maintain a planet fit for life, rediscovering and reinterpreting the past has an important role to play. For many in the chronically impoverished global south, this process is about junking imported attitudes to the environment and returning local knowledge to its rightful dignity.
Wherever lasting solutions appear, they are premised on restoring power to those who know a place best. This is precisely the kind of fearless politics that the climate crisis calls for. We know that regimes imposed from above won’t cut it, but we don’t know if Scotland itself will be brave enough to take such radical steps.
Media scholar Michael Billig memorably noted that nationalism is often “banal”. A lot of what differentiates one country from another are those details that we take for granted, rather than those that are embedded in grand narratives about what marks out one person from another.
It was therefore unsurprising to see the UK Government announce a new heat and building strategy based around a technology that totally overlooks one of the key differences between Scotland and England – the nature of its housing stock and built environment.
Ground source heat pumps have limited applicability to tenements and flats in general: but the vast work of retrofitting and insulating will be absolutely vital to tackling the climate crisis. A fifth of our emissions come from building operations, and Scotland’s Climate Assembly has called for all buildings to be net-zero by 2030.
District heating schemes are common in many countries at a similar latitude to Scotland. The fact that British homes are still the coldest in Europe points clearly to the fact that we are an outlier: a country where the needs of landlords and developers always come first and where public solutions to housing and heating are frowned upon.
As housing expert Douglas Robertson recently pointed out – the first council scheme in Scotland, Logie in Dundee, was built with a district heating system back in 1920. When it comes to just outcomes, whether in social or environmental terms the public really does work. The private sector, on the other hand, equivocates and eyes the bottom line.
A critical part of understanding the necessary forms of action we now require is to accept that we have regressed. We have moved away from social housing en-masse thanks to a disastrous sell-off programme that has led to a spiralling housing crisis.
When it comes to connecting up those homes, we have privatised municipal networks laid down by previous generations for the benefit of all.
The rationale of the heat pump subsidy scheme shows that the UK Government believes climate justice can be layered onto this dysfunctional and unjust system.
But this can also be a cause for optimism: the great shift to privatisation is only a few decades old. There is a better society out there for the taking that could revive life everywhere, but it is simply not compatible with the relatively new habits of mass private car ownership, disposable consumer electronics and an obsession with homeownership.
Everywhere, vested interests are narrowing the window for preserving life to serve their own profits and protect their own assets.
Property development is the default repository for that excess capital. Thus despite the fact that construction is a significantly more costly endeavour in carbon terms than retrofiring, with the emissions in old buildings “locked-in”, we still operate a VAT system that incentivises new build.
DURING the SNP’s iconic “It’s Scotland Oil” campaign in 1974, the party asked: “why are so many Scots old folk cold and undernourished? Why do 5000 die of hypothermia every year?”.
That moral urgency often seems lacking today. While many Unionists decried the “selfishness” of the SNP’s highly successful 1974 slogan; the underlying message was about the absurdity of poverty in amidst new wealth and abundance. It foreshadowed the squandering of all that offshore wealth as the nation’s manufacturing base haemorrhaged jobs.
That oil underwrote mass employment has become the touchstone for that era of Scottish politics: but the often shocking state of the nation’s housing was equally central. Bad housing and fuel poverty have been Scotland’s shame for too long.
Soon, the flow of North Sea oil onshore may ebb, but the waters of Loch Katrine will continue to flow under the Trossachs regardless.
The wonders of that scheme were not created simply due to Victorian vim and vigour. Instead, they were a radical, public, response to an environmental crisis and terrifying new diseases brought about by industrial expansion.
There is so much to be done over the coming decade: the only realistic option we have is to look around us for tried and tested tools for change. If the Scottish Government is to live up to its stated ambition of being an exemplary host for COP26, it must accept the overwhelming evidence embodied in Scotland’s fine old cities: that the public works.
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