Success or failure? Net zero or burning in the flames of carbon hell? As the verbal smoke and fury clears from Clydeside and weary COP26 delegates have headed home, has global catastrophe edged closer or moved further away as a result of what was agreed?
The ebb and flow of negotiation has resulted in notable agreements – on the availability of 'green' investment finance and a final deadline for the end of forestry exploitation, for example – that seemed more distant in the run-up to Glasgow. The sterling work of COP president Alok Sharma and his team seemed undone as, during stages of the second week, India and others fought to weaken key pledges on bringing an end to coal production subsidies.
By Friday, weary but determined, many delegates had become set on driving home some key points as COP26 struggled to 'keep 1.5 alive', a mantra chanted by the UK presidency and others, however vainly, as the conference proceeded. If all last weekend's promises are kept – a big if, obviously – the climate increase should be contained at 1.8 degrees.
Despite the stutters and setbacks, and India particularly digging its heels in, there was evidence that delegates were determined to get a deal over the line. On Friday, there was a powerful statement by the representative from Tuvalu, the South Pacific island under dire threat from rising seas. He was followed by the likes of Panama, Mexico, Ghana: all set to drive a deal. The conference over-ran that evening, and into the Saturday, as everyone had known it would.
We were treated to coverage served up with bated breath, especially by broadcast news. Keen to dramatise even the mundane, many reporter two-ways and contributor interviews bordered on the incoherent. However serious the climate situation, do news organisations serve us well by giving platforms to campaigners who seemed to have nothing more to say than whatever is agreed will not be enough? Is it helpful to repeatedly parrot 'blah blah blah'? Surely we can only roar 'the end is nigh' so often before the message dilutes itself and people stop listening?
There was so much theatre about COP26. At one end, the policing overkill, the virtual shutting-down of west central Glasgow for more than two weeks, punctuated by dozens of jet flights from all over the world, all serves to underline the sense that this was the elite event portrayed by critics – one that is graced by our mighty leaders and completely at odds with the low-carbon future most of their governments espouse. The US Presidential cavalcade represents a throwback to another age. Whatever the security concerns, does it really justify so many vehicles, and so much armour? It seems to exist as much to demonstrate some kind of jingoistic machismo as it might be protecting the leader of the free world from… what exactly, an anti-tank missile? Nuclear war? Greenpeace?
The protests delivered a similar sense of occasion, rather than any deep message. Climate change is a serious subject. It demands change at every social and economic level, if we are to come anywhere achieving COP targets and alleviating the worst effects of global warming. But is it enough to demand that all fossil fuel stop instantly? One prominent campaigner told primetime news that 2030 was 'too late'. Yet 2030 is only eight years away: does anyone seriously believe that we could plug every oil well, flare off the last gas and seal all the coal mines within that time? Of course not.
Change is incremental. The question is whether the increments can be accelerated into a coherent path towards a low-carbon world. Zero carbon is probably not possible even in the medium -term; some country, somewhere, will continue to burn fossil fuels beyond everyone else. That does not mean everyone else should stop trying, or that all corporations are engaging cynically in 'greenwash'.
So Glasgow now has its own place in the green lexicon, having played host to a COP that will be remembered for progressing the high ambitions of Paris 2015, which became shrouded in hubris and failed in the face of corporate inactivity and Trumpian hostility. The aim in 2021 was to kick-start change, knock heads together, and at least the items agreed in the so-called 'Glasgow Climate Pact' represent progress; the real proof of which will be tested when COP27 meets in Egypt next year.
Nicola Sturgeon seized her chance to make some mark on COP26, despite her relatively unofficial status in an event organised by the UK Government (with Italy). Criticised for supposedly 'photo-bombing' figures like President Biden and Chancellor Merkel at functions, the First Minister did manage to set out the stall for Scotland and her government over the fortnight.
The real task for Sturgeon is to add flesh to the bones of a real green economic and industrial strategy. She is most comfortable aligning herself with climate activists and proclaiming her faith in 'net zero'. But her conversion to green politics is quite recent – just four years ago the First Minister spoke publicly about exploiting North Sea oil for a generation to come.
Yes, Scotland has onshore and offshore wind turbines and an array of other renewable energy sources but right now they cannot supply continuous power. Sooner or later, the SNP – and all parties in Scotland – will have to set out how we shall keep the lights on in future, powering business and industry, and heat our homes.
The SNP is opposed to nuclear power, post Hunterston and Torness, both of which are approaching their end-of-life. Having spent 50 years claiming 'Scotland's oil', the party is opposed to the extension of the oil and gas industry, despite having counted on it so heavily during the 2014 independence campaign.
With two Greens in government, the SNP is also likely to observe net zero targets. Difficult when new and improved roads are being promised, and inefficient ferries are still plying Hebridean routes thanks to a failed renewal plan and the Ferguson Marine debacle.
The energy industry is the most likely source of new technology that will help deliver 'net zero' aims, whether it be in the controversial (and still unproven) carbon capture and storage field, or in developing hydrogen as an alternative to gas. The oil and gas industries still employ tens of thousands of people, mainly in the north-east of Scotland, as well as Fife and Forth Valley. Amid all the talk of a 'just transition', what exactly will that look like for many of them? Will their employers all manage that transition in such a way that everyone keeps their jobs? Are jobs in hydrogen plants, or wind farms or in carbon capture going to be as well-paid or as numerous as the oil sector has been for folk in Aberdeen, Grangemouth or Sullom Voe?
It should not be enough to say simply that such big, hard questions are the domain of Westminster, or the Treasury, or in the boardrooms of BP, Ineos and Shell. Sure, a devolved government does not hold the major levers of economic power. But it does handle significant funds and powers of intervention, not least via the development agencies and the major spending departments of government. And, above all, the First Minister likes to lead the way on the environment. Where London plans to ban petrol and diesel cars by 2040, she has set a Scottish deadline of 2035, for example.
That instinct to move more quickly, to commit to causes and set strict new climate targets, comes at a price. The Scottish Government cannot just wait and hope for independence to achieve it.
Maurice Smith is a journalist and documentary producer