Emails between the two governments show that Holyrood officials were forced to rely on news articles and press releases to gather key information about where the UK stood in its bid to host the UN’s flagship climate conference.
Scottish Government officials asked for more information about the status of the UK’s bid four times without response between 12 and 19 of June 2019, the correspondence – released under freedom of information legislation – shows. One described themselves as sounding “like a broken record” as a result.
Details of the UK Government’s intention to host the event were widely reported on 18 June.
In a letter to the Cabinet Office, Scotland’s most senior civil servant, Leslie Evans, bemoaned the lack of “advanced notice” of the bid for COP26, noting that this would have allowed the Scottish Government to plan its “various responses in a more considered manner”.
COP26, set to be the biggest international summit the UK has ever hosted, is due to be held at the Scottish Events Campus (SEC) between 1-12 November this year.
A spokesperson from the UK Government said that Glasgow was chosen as host because of its “experience and world-class facilities”, adding that it was committed to delivering a “COP26 for all of the UK”.
Independence campaigners say The Ferret’s findings are evidence of the UK Government’s “consistent failure” to involve Scottish and devolved administrations in the preparations for the summit.
But others expressed fears that the row would distract from the failure of both Scotttish and UK governments to adequately address climate emissions.
The emails show that the Scottish Government was first made aware of the UK’s intention to host the summit – and that Glasgow was a potential host city – in a phone call between civil servants on the 12 June, 2019.
This was less than a week prior to the bid being formally announced by the UK Government on 18 June.
No formal communication
In a subsequent email on the same day as the phone call, a Scottish Government representative recommended that any decision on Glasgow being the host city should be taken following consultation with Holyrood, including “at ministerial level”.
The consultation would have focused on “practical arrangements, risks, and opportunities presented from holding such an important event in Scotland”, according to the Holyrood official.
They added that consultation would have been a chance to discuss the involvement of “wider Scottish institutions” in events at the summit.
The initial correspondence on 12 June was followed up by three consecutive emails from the same Scottish Government official between 17 and 19 June, asking for more details on the bid.
Included in these emails was an article by Buzzfeed and a now-deleted tweet by former head of the conference, Claire O’Neill, both reporting that the UK Government was set to host COP26.
The emails note that though ministers in Edinburgh had seen this media coverage, they had still received no formal communication of these announcements by Westminster counterparts.
In the last email, on 19 June, the Scottish Government official notes that Holyrood “would have preferred if formal communication could have been made” of the UK Government’s intention to host COP in partnership with Italy.
“Just to say, and not meaning to sound like a broken record, advanced notice that this is happening is important, given our interest in this area. Particularly if there is an announcement on host city,” the email continued.
The UK Government official did not respond to these emails until 19 June, by which point Westminster had already announced its intention to host COP26 in partnership with Italy.
In their reply, the UK Government representative apologised “for not giving more official notification of the announcement”, adding that this was due to the “situation becoming incredibly sensitive and fast-moving with Italy”.
The Cabinet Office formally notified Holyrood that Glasgow was the intended host city on 9 August and the UK was confirmed on 10 September as the host of COP26.
George Kerevan, former SNP MP and co-convener of Now Scotland, a new non-partisan campaign for Scottish independence, said the lack of consultation on COP26 showed that Westminster is more interested in “global grandstanding” than uniting to tackle the climate crisis.
“London Tory governments cannot be trusted to protect Scotland’s wonderful natural heritage, never mind lead a united world against climate extinction,” he added. “Only united action from below can achieve these ends.”
Details of tensions between the two governments over the organisation of COP were revealed last year following the sacking of Claire O’Neill as the summit’s President.
O’Neill, a former Conservative minister, said in an interview that Boris Johnson had “saltily” sought to exclude Nicola Sturgeon from the proceedings at COP26. She added that the Prime Minister “doesn’t really get” climate change.
The UN’s 26th Conference of the Parties on climate change (COP26) was originally scheduled for November 2020 but was postponed due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This year’s event is still scheduled to go ahead, although recent reports have suggested that it could be downsized or cancelled entirely if coronavirus infection rates remain high globally.
But currently 30,000 delegates and world leaders are expected to attend, including the US President Joe Biden.
Scotland’s chief constable last year estimated that the policing bill alone for a full-scale COP26 – which would require shipping in officers from across the UK – could “exceed £200 million”.
In a board meeting of the Scottish Police Authority, Iain Livingstone also said the climate conference would have a significant impact on the wider community in Glasgow throughout its two-week duration.
As a UK Government event, Westminster is expected to foot the bill for COP26.
A further row between the UK and Scottish governments centred on the Scottish Government’s decision to book the Glasgow Science Centre, a key part of the SEC, for the duration of the event.
The Scottish Government has since relinquished control of the Science Centre after it was agreed that an alternative venue would be found for its activities throughout COP26.
The governments are now presenting a united front, with Nicola Sturgeon tweeting last year that the summit was “not about Boris Johnson or me”.
But environmental activists and Green politicians expressed concern that the crucial talks at COP26 could be turned into a “proxy battle between the Scottish and UK governments”.
She continued: “The added complexity of hosting due to Covid-19 means there is even more responsibility on parties to sort out any remaining differences and focus on delivering the talks safely and effectively, enabling full participation from all stakeholders, particularly those on the frontline of the climate crisis.”
Meanwhile, Mark Ruskell, the Scottish Greens’ environment spokesperson, said that “squabbling” between the two governments resembled “two bald men fighting over a comb”, given their respective lack of action on climate change.
“Both governments commit to further fossil fuel exploration, endless road upgrades, and pin their hopes on undeveloped technology like carbon capture and storage or electric passenger planes,” Ruskell added.
“The host nations’ integrity at this summit hinges on whether they can bring more to the table than eye-catching ‘net-zero’ targets.”
COP26 is viewed by many observers as the last chance to finalise the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global temperature rises to two degrees centigrade.
Organisers have come under fire for their choice of sponsors for the summit, which dictates which companies will get privileged access to policymakers at the event.
Activist groups have said that both stories raise concerns that big polluters are trying to use the COP26 summit to ‘greenwash’, and bolster their climate friendly credentials.
The Scottish Government said it was “proud to welcome COP26 to Scotland”, and that the event summit was an important chance to accelerate international action on climate change.
A spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government will be playing a full and active role at the summit, as we have done in previous years, showcasing Scotland’s world-leading approach to tackling the climate emergency and delivering a just transition to a net-zero future.”
A UK Government spokesperson said: “The UK Government is committed to COP26 delivering for all of the UK. We have regularly engaged with all parts of the UK, as they have important roles to play in ensuring an ambitious, inclusive and successful summit.”
This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.
Cover image thanks to iStock/Jennifer Sophie.