On a chilly but sunny morning on Thursday 4 November, the first of three COP26 events directly involving the Scottish Parliament took place. The event titled ‘Code Red: The Role of Parliaments in the Climate and Ecological Emergencies’ was held in the Scottish Government’s Climate Ambition Zone at The Lighthouse in the center of Glasgow.
What was the purpose of the event?
While governments can commit to targets, actions, and spending, parliaments are mandated by the people of a country to hold them to account on those commitments, to approve budgets, and to make the law. In the context of tackling the climate and ecological emergencies, effective parliamentary scrutiny is key to ensuring governments uphold their policy commitments.
This event brought together parliamentarians, advisers, climate justice advocates, and academics to explore how parliaments should evolve to deliver their functions in the context of a ‘Code Red’ for humanity. It sought to address questions such as:
- How can parliaments and their processes be set up to ensure we are all on track for 2030 commitments?
- What expert advice do parliaments need in such emergencies, and how should they access it?
- What will parliaments need to look like in 2030 to ensure we hit the Net Zero commitments in the 2040s?
Who spoke at the event?
Five speakers attended the event. Malini Mehra, Chief Executive of GLOBE International chaired the event, with contributions from:
- Dean Lockhart MSP, Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee.
- Hon. Charity Kathambi MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Network on Renewable Energy and Climate Change in Kenya.
- Professor Tahseen Jafry, Director, Centre for Climate Justice, Glasgow Caledonian University.
- Jennifer Hill, Head of International and Buildings, the United Kingdom Climate Change Committee.
What were the key points from the discussion?
Speakers began with some opening remarks setting out their perspectives on tackling climate change and on the role of parliaments. Dean Lockhart MSP began by setting out the Scottish context and highlighted how the Scottish Parliament’s Net Zero Committee was set up in recognition of the importance of tackling climate change. He noted the cross-party consensus that climate change is caused by humans and that Scotland and the UK as a whole have a leading role to play in tackling the problem. He said that parliaments must be policymakers, not just policy watchers and that no government has a monopoly on good ideas, noting the important role of parliamentary committees in linking government thinking to reality on the ground.
Charity Kathambi MP provided a perspective that brought home the differences in the challenges and priorities faced by African nations in dealing with climate change, such as water and food scarcity, and deforestation. She noted that Africa has contributed a relatively small amount of greenhouse gas emissions but suffers the most severe consequences such as drought, landslides, and famine. She explained that Kenya is taking the issues seriously and is the first African nation to have a climate change law.
Professor Jafry highlighted three fundamental issues – democracy, voice, and representation. She noted a strong voice in Scotland, particularly with its unique Climate Justice Fund that demonstrates the moral obligation for acting on climate change – but also that such mechanisms must be built on a sound evidence base and should be focused on what they are expected to achieve.
Jennifer Hill explained the role of the UK Climate Change Committee in providing independent advice to the UK and devolved parliaments and governments in how to achieve and implement climate change policy. She highlighted the International Climate Council Network established at COP26 which aims to foster collaboration between climate advisory councils around the world. She emphasised the importance of evidence, transparency, and people power.
During the rest of the event, there was a focus on the themes of capacity, diversity, and inclusion, regional and subnational representation, and public participation.
Speakers identified capacity and resources as a major challenge for parliaments’ ability to effectively scrutinise and hold governments to account given the scale of the problem.
Dean Lockhart MSP noted how the response to COVID-19 demonstrated what is possible when a whole government approach is applied to a problem. He also advocated for the need for joint working between government and the private sector to ensure capacity, expertise, and finance.
Charity Kathambi MP explained how county assemblies in Kenya are invited to the national assembly to encourage learning and knowledge sharing, and that a proportion of the budget is allocated to mainstreaming climate change issues.
Professor Jafry suggested that it is important for parliaments to understand where their own capacity is not what it needs to be, and how to fill such knowledge gaps.
Speakers also discussed the importance of sharing knowledge, expertise, and finance between developed and developing nations as being critical to tackling climate change.
Diversity and Inclusion
Another focal point of the event was on the role and voice of women, children, and those less able to tackle climate change. Charity Kathambi MP explained how women and children in Africa suffer the worst impacts of climate change. She advocated for women to be decision-makers and stated where there is no presence of women, there is no voice for women.
Malini Mehra highlighted the important work of Kenyan environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai and noted that women only make up a quarter of parliamentarians globally.
Regional and subnational representation
Speakers acknowledged the important role of subnational (i.e. devolved nations and local government) and regional representation in combatting climate change. Malini Mehra noted the hundreds and thousands of cities and regions that have adopted net-zero targets and that sometimes tensions on climate ambition exist between national and subnational governments.
Jennifer Hill and Dean Lockhart MSP both stressed the importance of local government within the UK and Scotland in the implementation of climate change policy and the need for adequate finance, resources, and expertise. They drew attention to key challenges for local government in delivering net-zero targets such as transport infrastructure, planning consents, and decarbonising domestic heat.
Charity Kathambi MP explained how in Kenya, subnational representation is provided by 47 counties, who lobby the central government for investment on policies such as reforestation. She highlighted how regionally, parliaments have come together to form an East African bloc to share best practice on how to deal with common problems such as cleaner cooking fuels, and transboundary ecological issues.
Professor Jafry emphasised the strength and power of people’s voices held at grassroots level and touched on the need for policies on climate change to be driven from the bottom-up as well as top-down.
Speakers also drew attention to the emerging role of citizens assemblies and other deliberative processes in providing a voice to the public in finding solutions. Jennifer Hill noted the important role of indigenous communities in the Glasgow leaders’ declaration on forests and land use announced at COP26 which pledges to halt deforestation by 2030.
The Scottish Parliament’s events at COP26 continues on Wednesday 10 November with a joint Scottish Parliament and Nordic Council event on Code Red for Parliaments – vital institutions in the climate emergency.
Damon Davies, SPICe Research