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Director’s Note – Reflections on COP26

Published 23 November 2021 by Transform Scotland

Transform Scotland’s director Colin Howden reflects on COP26 and Scotland more specifically, and the varying levels of commitment being shown across the country to reduce emissions.

Views vary on the success or otherwise of COP26. Demonstrably it wasn’t the success claimed by some as we are still on course for at least 2.4 degrees of warming rather than 1.5. And even that’s predicated on an awful lot of ‘net zero’ wishful thinking.[1]

But where the world’s nation states have failed, there’s still an opportunity for sub-state actors to put in place the measures that countries failed to do. As John Vidal put it, “Because most climate actions devolve to lower tiers of government, mayors, local authorities, counties and states can be enabled to slash transport […] emissions”.[2]


So let’s start with Glasgow itself. Things are at last moving in the right direction here. Its active travel network ambitions are impressive. [3] Glasgow’s leader has raised expectations about developing a car-free city centre. [4] It has been promised billions for a ‘Glasgow Metro’. Its main bus operators are now making swift progress in decarbonising their fleets. [5] And the council has turned down plans for a zombie road scheme in the east of the city. [6] So all seems on course through in the west — which is something that would have been inconceivable for us to conclude a decade ago, when the city’s focus was still focussed on subsidising increased car use through new road-building.


Edinburgh continues to lead the way on transport policies, with the most recent iteration being a commitment to a 30% reduction in traffic levels by 2030, [7] ahead of the 20% traffic reduction pledge from the Scottish Government. Edinburgh’s challenge, as it has been for a couple of decades now, is to follow through on its policy ambitions. Encouragingly, and unlike the other Scottish cities, Edinburgh has delivered a significant new addition to its sustainable transport network in recent decades (Edinburgh Trams) and is now far-advanced in extending that (Trams to Newhaven). But there has been no large-scale road space reallocation in the city since Princes Street was shut to cars in the 1990s, and the city now needs to make progress with this — starting with its city centre.

The administrations of our two largest cities are constrained by the patterns of capital expenditure across their wider city-regions. While the Glasgow City Deal has made available funds for sustainable transport investment in the city, it also makes available large sums for new road capacity in surrounding local authorities. This pattern is repeated in the east, where the largest transport investment threatened for the city is the Sheriffhall Roundabout scheme; ridiculously, this single roundabout dwarfs City Deal sustainable transport investment for the rest of the city. And that’s not the end of it. Midlothian Council has resurrected its own zombie road scheme, the A701, which will only pour more traffic onto the City Bypass. [8] Meanwhile, Transport Scotland is to push ahead with its own M9 Winchburgh scheme, facilitating further car-dependent sprawl. [9]


Aberdeen remains even further behind. Its administration is still pressing ahead with inter-city road-building schemes. The car is awash with road space but, even after the opening of the bypass that was heralded as curing all of the city’s transport ills, the priority remains the provision of additional space for cars. [10] The poverty of sustainable transport ambition in the city was well-illustrated by the derision that followed a suggestion that the city might want to look to develop a tram network: the city was seen as being “too small” for light rail. [11] Yet we estimate that there have been around 52 new tram schemes in Europe since 2000, including around 23 in cities with populations smaller than Aberdeen. [12] The city has now decided to move on to full pedestrianisation of the central section of Union Street. [13] While the designs look pretty, [14] it leads to the removal of bus services from the centre of the city; it’s odd that the city hasn’t pursued the successful model delivered on Broad Street.


Then there’s Dundee. The city’s transport focus seems to be squarely on active travel, bus priority and electric vehicles — and I seldom spot developments that appear of significant concern. (Apologies for some vagueness here, but, as an Aberdonian, I feel I should be excused a historical blindness to all things Tayside.) At least I am aware that the city’s main bus operator, Xplore Dundee, is introducing electric buses to its fleet next month, and it’s welcome that Dundee is beginning to make the sort of investment here that Glasgow is already delivering at scale.

So, at least in the Scottish cities, there’s a live debate about how to deliver sustainable transport, and while progress is varied, there is at least a prospect of our cities delivering the emissions reductions from transport that nation states are failing to do.

The Scottish Government

What remains to be seen is whether our largest sub-state administration, the Scottish Government, will join the party. In the past couple of years, it has made impressive policy commitments towards bus and rail decarbonisation, active travel investment, and road traffic reduction. But work on decarbonising bus and rail is only now coming to fruition, while the latter of these lack detailed implementation plans. And the real test will be whether the Scottish Government takes action to align its capital expenditure plans to prioritise sustainable transport. Committed investment in its current Infrastructure Investment Plan is massively skewed towards high-carbon transport [15], and so we wait to see whether all the ‘net zero’ froth is followed in STPR2 with a fundamental realignment of spending priorities behind sustainable transport. We have our doubts as to whether Transport Scotland has the capabilities to carry through on this; certainly, the aviation consultation it recently published, which features unbounded boosterism for flying, suggests that its commitment to high-carbon transport remains deep-seated.

The Scottish Parliament

And then there’s the role of the Scottish Parliament. Last week’s roads debate demonstrates just how superficial commitments towards climate change action remain across the political spectrum, with both the Tories and Labour choosing to use the first transport debate after COP26 to promote a renewed new road-building programme.[16] One would have thought that these parties would have the discretion to at least put a week or two between their grandstanding around climate and their reversion to pushing the same failed policies that created the climate crisis in the first place. But clearly for these parties, the car must remain paramount — and, if the planet has to burn as a consequence, well so be it.

So while the world’s nation states failed in their task of using COP26 to resolve the climate crisis, our own task remains unchanged. We need to keep watching those ‘lower tiers of government’ and to make ever-stronger demands that investment in sustainable transport must come first, and that the failed policies of past decades be finally and comprehensively rejected.



[5]  One of my Glasgow correspondents has noted “It’ll be interesting to see where the First buses will be deployed post-COP. However, with rather less fanfare, McGill’s had converted their route 26 (Glasgow – Drumoyne – Nethercraigs) a couple of weeks before and then in the week that COP started, launched electric buses on their route 23 (Glasgow – Renfrew – Erskine). This meant that by the time of COP, all McGill’s services that passed the Green Zone had been converted to electrics. More than that, they seem to have started conversion of their trunk route 38 between Glasgow and Johnstone via Paisley Road West and Paisley to electrics as well which will mean all their local (as opposed to motorway express) services out of Glasgow will be electric.”