This blog is guest written by Alison Johnstone MSP, Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. It was originally written as an article for ‘The Geographer‘, a quarterly magazine of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
The coat of arms of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city – and known as the dear, green place – contains a bird, a tree, a fish and a bell. These are often reflected in rhyme:
Whilst the symbolism relates to St. Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow, the representation could not be more pertinent to the challenge facing world leaders as they gather for COP26 in October and November 2021.
If ever the ‘bell’ represented both a warning, and a call to action, it is now. The United Nations ‘Code Red’ for humanity, issued in August 2021, could not be starker. This, the most up to date and comprehensive scientific analysis ever carried out on climate change concludes that it is widespread, rapid and intensifying. Directly related, many of the global indicators on biodiversity are pointing in the wrong direction – including on trees, on birds and on fish.
Action, or inaction, on climate change and biodiversity will dictate whether we meet the globally agreed UN Sustainable Development Goals – which cover social, environmental and economic outcomes. The next best chance for action is in Glasgow at COP26, and at the imminent other global gatherings on biodiversity and desertification.
As the new Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, I am acutely aware of the unique role for parliaments in the climate and biodiversity crises. Holding governments to account, ensuring the law is as good as it can be, and ensuring budgets follow policy are fundamental roles for parliaments and legislatures the world over.
At the opening of the Scottish Parliament in July 1999, our then First Minister, Donald Dewar, stated:
The location for COP26 is on the site of some of those very shipyards which first brought Glasgow to the world – and the world to Glasgow. Many of the shipyards are no more, but as COP26 delegates will see, at least parts of this post-industrial landscape have reinvented – transition at scale is possible.
Parliamentarians will be represented on some national delegations at COP26, and we will have some Scottish Parliament involvement in Glasgow, but as a devolved legislature, we have carved out our own role. Our annual Festival of Politics, an open online forum, is themed around the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and then, on 5 and 6 November, we host a global Legislators’ Summit.
As an institution in the global north, we recognise that the Summit needs fair and equitable representation – our state-of-the-art facilities will deliver that through a hybrid in-person, online, and translated event – the virtual Summit will be open to others as observers. We will engage parliamentarians in their hundreds and thousands – demonstrating leadership, learning from each other, and sharing best practice.
The Summit is delivered in partnership with Globe International. Founded by then senators Al Gore and John Kerry, and their counterparts in the European Parliament, Russian Duma and Japanese Diet, Globe is a cross-party network of parliamentarians dedicated to improving governance for sustainable development.
In advance of the Summit, ‘The Moment’ is an opportunity for children and young people to share their climate hopes directly with their elected representatives. These views will be shared directly at the Legislators’ Summit too.
We will share our own learning – about how cross-committee scrutiny has changed Scottish Government climate change law and policy, and on our own impact assessment tool on sustainable development. Equally, we will share challenges – how best to scrutinise complex systems, and how to improve participation in such issues.
The Parliament must be an exemplar. How the institution carries itself, and how we manage our own estate presents another opportunity for leadership. This now includes rollout of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society Climate Solutions Accelerator training, but there is much more to do – as I lead the Parliament into its Sixth Session, this will be a key focus of my time as Presiding Officer.
Alison Johnston MSP, Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament