How hosting COP26 is cementing Glasgow's green credentials

The spotlight is on Glasgow as the hosts of COP26. What role do cities play in addressing global challenges such as climate change? Susan Aitken, Council Leader for Glasgow City Council, shares how can cities can leverage their events to grow their international reputation, engage citizens in key areas, and generate equitable development for the whole community.

Thanks for joining us, Susan. We wanted to start with COP26. What does it mean for Glasgow to have been selected as the host city? What would be your tip for other cities looking to leverage events to support their own strategies and values?

Our selection as COP26 host is testament to Glasgow’s growing international track record as a city capable of successfully hosting major international events. And it is a reflection of the changed perceptions of Glasgow, a city transformed, an ambitious and innovative centre of the new green economy and one with an enviable record on sustainability.

We know from work commissioned by Glasgow City Council and several partners from the leading urbanist Prof Greg Clark that we are viewed as globally connected, with a reputation in tourism and hospitality excellence. A global event in both scale and significance like COP takes that to a whole new level. It is, some have said, potentially the most important diplomatic event in our lifetimes.

There is, in short, a lot riding on Glasgow. A successful COP means a safer and more just planet. Of course, I would like to have the name of my city synonymous with that. But the international exposure is also an unrivalled opportunity to promote the city to new, global and influential audiences, to flaunt our climate and hosting credentials. And it’s a platform to promote and accelerate our efforts to transition to carbon neutrality, to help attract and secure funding and investment for projects to deliver our transformation and stimulate our city economy.

Glasgow’s standing as a destination, as an events city, has been hard won over several decades. There’s something of a consensus that securing the 1990’s European City of Culture title was a turning point. It gave us a platform to project our culture, making it the centre piece of our celebrations. It turned Glasgow’s fortunes around and that character and richness is now integral how we attract talent, ideas, and major international events.

Through a number of major sports events, we’ve also cemented our place as a leading centre in sport. We’ve challenged perceptions, taken what we’ve known have been our strengths and successes, ensured a warm welcome and safe and enjoyable event, built on the growing reputation and taken this to new levels. I have no doubt that our commitment to and investment in our standing and ability as a host city has been pivotal in securing COP. And COP provides an opportunity to start to create new narratives, a story of an innovative, progressive, connected and sustainable city. 


It seems to us that cities are taking a more active role on the international stage than in previous years. What role do you think cities play in driving change around global challenges?

The Paris Agreement in 2015 was when the role of cities in addressing the climate emergency was properly recognised. In the five years since, it is cities which have created the moment, transforming aspirations into action to secure a safer, cleaner and more just future. A line I have used in many recent events I have taken part in and which seems to resonate with other participants is ‘nation states pledge, but cities deliver.’

Indeed, even when nation states refuse to engage in the climate agenda, cities can still be at the forefront of progressive action. We’ve seen that in the US during the Trump administration when so many individual cities and states progressed the Paris Agreement, regardless of the rhetoric coming from the White House.

Glasgow’s status as COP26 host has allowed me to a platform to engage with cities from across the globe. That appetite to find common cause, to share and collaborate for the well-being – indeed the survival - of our planet is really tangible.

And more and more of us are appreciating the context. Over half the world’s population lives in cities. Cities are where we work, where we drive, take buses, heat our homes and as such cities generate the bulk of the world’s emissions. They are quite literally the heat maps. They also set the pace for economic, social, and cultural change. In Scotland, our ambitious Net Zero targets cannot be delivered without the lead of its biggest city, its economic and innovation powerhouse – Glasgow.  That relationship between the nation and the city is replicated across the world. So perhaps unlike any previous COPs its vital that the voices of cities are heard. And I’m determined that in November cities, regions and local authorities will take their place at Glasgow’s table and grasp that opportunity to show the world real leadership on the climate emergency. 

You mentioned in your presentation at CNP UK 2020 that you were welding economic stimuli to environmental goals as part of your longer-term, sustainable recovery strategy. Could you explain a little what that looks like on a practical level?


Perhaps the best way to explain and illustrate is to provide two specific examples.

Since becoming the city administration in 2017, we have accelerated efforts to address chronic congestion and pollution in Glasgow, a city still largely operating within its Victorian grid layout.

Our commitment to transforming our streets so they can become greener, healthier and more accessible, is also about making them more attractive, creating spaces where people want to spend time is better for them and better for business. It’s no surprise that Glasgow’s busiest and most popular thoroughfare has been largely pedestrianised since the late 1970s. 

The need for safe physical distancing as lockdown eased added an urgency to that work and was assisted by the Scottish Government’s emergency legislation, which removed the need for regulation orders and other slow processes. We needed the infrastructure to support that massive uptake in walking and cycling. So, supported by Scottish Government funding, we implemented ‘Spaces For People,’ re-allocating road space for walking, cycling, and wheeling, providing many hospitality businesses with outside space for safe trade and encouraging citizens to re-engage with the social and economic life of the city.

But it has allowed citizens to now consider a cleaner and greener Glasgow, one which relegates the private car and is already unfolding via the redesign of key thoroughfares through our Avenues programme.

Similarly, pre-Covid Glasgow announced its plans for the Clyde Mission, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to continue the regeneration of our riverfront. That includes Scotland’s largest centre of economic activity, Glasgow city centre, as well as some of our most deprived area.  We have plenty of success to build upon in the area

Yet unlocking the Clyde’s potential means reinstating historic areas of vacant and derelict land and addressing emerging flood issues through investment in intervention schemes. This can be a catalyst for recovery across many communities, as well as sending a signal to the private sector.  A transformational major infrastructure project such as the Clyde Mission, and its individual shovel-ready projects, will help to drive recovery.  But it can also help address major macro challenges. That whole systems approach of stimulus, adaption, mitigation, social justice and inclusive growth must underscore our Green Recovery. It’s been hugely encouraging to receive the political and financial support from colleagues at the Scottish Government to add impetus to Clyde Mission.

I know that it’s been a big part of your COP26 strategy to ensure the city understands that this event is happening with Glasgow - because of Glasgow - and not an inconvenience that is being inflicted upon them. What are you hoping will be the legacy of the event for your citizens?

It’s critical that what I want from COP is relevant to the lives of ordinary Glaswegians. It cannot be remote from their everyday challenges and those of their communities and the needs of a major metropolitan area in transition. I’ve stated in many events I’ve spoken at that COP must happen with Glaswegians, not to them. At the time of writing, we have just launched our COP volunteer programme, with roles available in both Glasgow and Edinburgh. This will include providing information on the conference and the venues, supporting delegates staying in and travelling around the city, and promoting the best of what Glasgow and Scotland has to offer. Volunteers will receive a workshop on sustainability from the UN and be given the training and tools required to carry out their roles successfully and confidently.

Our experience of the 2014 Commonwealth Games tells us that ordinary people want to get involved, to be part of a significant world event on their doorsteps. Our communities are also being encouraged to put forward their own schemes for increased sustainability and which link to COP, such as more pop-up bike lanes or an urban forest on a previously derelict plot of land. That’s really for them to decide. We decided early on we would connect with communities and ensure there was a two-way engagement between the event and the city. That is the Glasgow way.

Of course, there’s still some uncertainty as to what the situation will be when COP26 comes around.

It remains the intention that COP is held in person. If so, there’s a potential boost for our hospitality and tourism sectors. Perhaps not what had been estimated pre-Covid when Glasgow was confirmed as host but still a significant positive impact on sectors emerging from the pandemic.

But the real wins are in the showcasing and the leverage, the global platform on which we can position ourselves as the demonstrator city for sustainability. Business and investors want to be associated with an event of this magnitude and significance. We already have more low carbon businesses and industries than any UK city outside of London and more of them generating all the time in the city innovation districts we have established. Our host status allows us to amplify that, to generate the interest and, hopefully, secure the investment to grow our green economy and boost our economic recovery from Covid.

And if we can combine that with the social justice message, with saying that as we tackle climate and carbon emissions, we are simultaneously tackling health inequality, fuel poverty, the skills gap… then we have a remarkable legacy.

Meanwhile, Government, at both a Scottish and UK level, will want to show the world its best face – and commitment to sustainability. Glasgow City Council has existing plans for major schemes that will address some of the biggest obstacles to us reaching our climate change target. For example, the need to retrofit the vast majority of our homes, especially those pre-1919 tenements which are part of the fabric and identity of the city. Similarly, our vision for the development of the Metro system, which we hope can be advanced by the Scottish Government this year. Or the construction of a Clyde barrage, which would simultaneously reclaim vacant and derelict sites, mitigate flooding, harness the potential energy from the river, and create new, green jobs.

We’re working with the UK Government’s Energy Systems Catapult to turn such projects into costed proposals. Once that is done, we will be able to go to the UK or Scottish government or to investors. Without COP I don’t think we would have the same levels of leverage.

Thanks for sharing that with us, Susan. I hope the preparations for COP26 continue to go well!

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