The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Irn-Bru and climate-funding pledges, Scotland’s leader made a role for herself at COP26

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, center, poses with climate activists Greta Thunberg, left, and Vanessa Nakate at the Glasgow climate summit. (Andy Buchanan/Reuters)

GLASGOW, Scotland — The leader of Scotland was busy while this city played host to a global summit on the fate of the Earth.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon posed for pictures with Greta Thunberg, joined a panel with Nancy Pelosi on climate and gender, gifted a tartan tie to U.S. envoy John F. Kerry and fetched Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez an Irn-Bru — an orange soda that’s often described as “Scotland’s other national drink.”

Sturgeon had no official role at the COP26 climate conference. She wasn’t part of the British delegation. Some observers went as far as to say that she was intentionally sidelined by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

But Sturgeon is scrappy. She carved out a role for herself on the sidelines of the United Nations summit, touting Scotland’s green credentials and also, sometimes more subtly than others, reminding people that Scotland is a semiautonomous nation — something she’d like to change.

On Thursday, she announced that Scotland was the first government contributor to a “loss and damage fund,” offering 2 million pounds ($2.7 million) to help countries facing irreversible harm from climate change.

“Scotland is a relatively small country of just 5 million people, and we don’t have substantial powers of borrowing,” Sturgeon said. “However, we can still lead by example, and there has never been a more vital time to do so.”

That’s a note she hit repeatedly during the two-week summit: Scotland is a leader on climate, she said, but independence would mean it could do more.

Elizabeth Bomberg, an environmental politics professor at the University of Edinburgh, wondered whether being part of the United Kingdom actually made it easier for Scotland to offer that loss-and-damage money.

Rich countries have been hesitant to venture there — they tend not to want to be seen as liable for the impact of their emissions on vulnerable parts of the world. But Scotland could make such an offer because any country pursuing climate litigation may potentially go after the U.K. government instead.

When the British government named Glasgow as the potential host city in its 2019 bid for the climate summit, it was reportedly meant as an olive branch to Scots who at the time were angry about Brexit — and had developed renewed interest in seeing Scotland quit the United Kingdom.

But confirmation of the summit in Scotland didn’t do much to dampen nationalist sentiment. Instead, many pro-independence Scots began to look forward to a chance to prove themselves as citizens of the world.

At the start of COP26, Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) took out full-page ads in local newspapers, one featuring dramatic Scottish crags next to the caption: “A nation in waiting welcomes the nations of the world.” The ad also featured a glam shot of Sturgeon and her large, flowing signature.

“Scotland helped lead the world into the industrial age. Now we’re proud to help lead the world into the net zero age,” it read. “While not yet an independent nation, we’re more than ready and able to play our part on the global stage at COP26.”

Sturgeon rejected criticism that her party was diverting attention away from the summit.

“We had adverts in a couple of newspapers welcoming people to Scotland,” she told reporters. “This conference is about climate change, and I don’t think anybody hearing or listening or speaking to me over the course of yesterday or today would think I’m focused on anything other than that.”

Some pro-independence activists said they had considered staging separate protests during the summit, but then decided it would be too distracting. They joined the tens of thousands of demonstrators marching through the streets of Glasgow in the name of “climate justice.” Though billowing blue-and-white Saltire flags helped them stand out from the crowd.

Tom Devine, professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, said the Scottish government had to tread carefully so as not to be seen as hijacking a global issue for its own local cause. But “the grass roots see this as a wonderful, global opportunity,” he said.

Analysts said Sturgeon was trying to lead on climate change but was also seizing opportunities to highlight Scotland while the eyes of the world are focused here.

“It’s not just opportunistic spin,” Bomberg said. “There is a genuine push to say, ‘Look, we can do this, we are only a small nation,’ and by that, she’s exposing lack of willingness for others to step up to the plate”

After Sturgeon’s loss-and-damage pledge, Saleemul Huq, a climate science expert from Bangladesh, said: “The true leader that has emerged here in COP26 is not a party to the convention. She’s our host.”

But Bomberg added that Sturgeon also seemed to be “seizing the opportunity to showcase Scotland as more progressive than the U.K. It’s part of SNP’s long-term strategy to force a wedge between Scotland and the U.K. government.”

Sturgeon repeatedly noted during COP26 that Scotland is aiming for net-zero emissions by 2045. Britain, overall, is targeting 2050.

The Scottish government has adopted a green tinge since it formed an agreement with the Scottish Greens, and Bomberg said it was probably “more green” than the British government “in ambition and rhetoric.” But this came with the “huge caveat that it is reluctant to let go of North Sea oil, due to the need to keep the economic case for independence as strong and robust as possible.”

Scots rejected independence 55 to 45 percent in 2014. But the SNP won an unprecedented fourth victory in the spring, promising to hold a second referendum before 2023. The prime minister says it won’t happen on his watch. The two sides may ultimately have to argue it out in the courts.

Support for independence reached 59 percent last year, in part because Sturgeon appeared to be handling the pandemic better than Johnson was. But opinion is now split almost evenly down the middle. It’s unclear whether anything happened during the climate summit that would move that needle.

“I suspect that most foreign countries have looked to COP as being in Britain,” said Chris Deerin, director of the Scottish think tank Reform. “I’m not sure it’s going to work exactly as the pro-independence people would like.”

Some of the hundreds of nationalists who joined climate protesters in the streets last weekend thought otherwise.

Ewan McGregor, 50, a gardener who shares the same name, age and nationality as the “Star Wars” actor, said: “People here can see. We want powers in our own hands. Scotland ran itself a few hundred yeas ago, and we were more successful then.”

His father, Ken McGregor, 80, a retired educator, said the summit helped raise the profile of Scotland — as opposed to Britain — on the world stage.

“The spotlight of the world is on Scotland,” he said.

Then again, the deal reached at the summit is called the “Glasgow climate pact.” Glasgow was able to boast that it’s going for net zero by 2030. Meanwhile, Edinburgh, which likes to think of itself as the superior Scottish city, became part of a running joke about international visitors who might be confused about the geography of Scotland.

In the end, it might be Glasgow that gets the boost.

More on climate change

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