6 November 2021
It’s 1765. James Watt is wandering across Glasgow Green, pondering the inefficiencies of the early steam engine, when he comes up with the idea of a separate condensing chamber. With a eureka moment something is unleashed and a chain of events and inventions unfolds that will lead us to railways, steam ships, the internal combustion engine and a few centuries of frenetic burning of fossil fuels. All of it gushing out carbon dioxide. All of it bringing us to the climate crisis we face now. All of it taking us to a point where, in 2021, Glasgow is host to a major climate conference, and that same Glasgow Green walked by Watt is the site of mass protest.
Watt, whose invention was just a single but crucial element in a revolution, knew nothing of these devastating future impacts. But we know it now. We have the models and the graphs. We know how tightly the story of carbon emissions is tied to our own industrial history and exploitation of fossil fuels. We even have a new way of looking at the world, a prism, in an age of terrifying anthropogenic climate change, through which we examine the impact we are having on our atmosphere. We call it our carbon footprint.
Glasgow, of course, has a carbon footprint as we all as individuals do. The city on which all eyes are focussed as it hosts COP26, also has its own historic emissions. It’s built on carbon, its past a long exhalation of carbon dioxide, pumped out over the past few centuries of industrialisation and post-industrialisation, in a cloud of population-surge, smog and steam.
There is a story we could tell of Glasgow through that footprint. Here is a city whose growth during the industrial revolution was fuelled by coal, now deemed dirty for its high emissions. It was the Second City of Empire, a ship-building, steam-driven manufacturing centre, which also carried emissions and a carbon revolution across the world leaving, in its colonial footprint, an accompanying carbon footprint.
Glaswegians live in the built shell of that carbon history, amidst infrastructure fabricated along with emissions.
The post-industrial city, however, is now a very different beast, both in terms of carbon and human labour and experience. Increasing proportions of it are fuelled by green energy, from sites like Whitelee windfarm. Our heating comes from natural gas, which emits around half the emissions of coal. Petrol and diesel-fuelled transport still stubbornly contribute to its footprint.
It’s been calculated that the UK has decarbonised faster than any other rich nation. Glasgow is part of that ongoing decarbonisation. The city council declared a climate and ecological emergency in 2019. It has made a commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 and mapped out its path in Glasgow’s Climate Plan. Already the city has reduced carbon dioxide emission by 41 percent since 2006.
But we do well not to forget our significant historic role. According to data on Statista, at the start of the industrial revolution, the UK had emitted approximately 9.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
Ten years later it had pumped out more than 100 million metric tons, and by the peak of the British Empire its tally was 3 billion tonnes.
NASA’s graphs on the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels across the past 800,000 years are clear. Look at it and you can see how unprecedented current carbon dioxide levels are. And what’s clear, when we look at Glasgow’s history is that this city, this dear carbon place, has played a significant role in that rise.
City of Coal
Glasgow is a city forged in a coal furnace. A city that, in 1801, had a population of around 77,000, but just over a century later housed a million. That, according to Ewan Gibbs, historian and author of Coal Country, was due to the “experience of industrialisation”; due to coal. “If you think about what Glasgow looked like in 1800,” he says, “and what it looked like in 1950, coal was central to that story.”
Coal was even mined in the city, and the area around. But mining isn’t the main story of Glasgow with regards to coal. That, says Gibb, was “consumption”. Over the industrial period, coal fuelled almost every aspect of life for its residents, and helped weave the fabric of the city. It wasn’t just that Glaswegians heated their homes with it, but that it was part of almost every process that made and ran the city.
“If you start at the level of Glasgow’s built-environment,” says Gibbs, “which owes a lot to that period of Victorian construction, the bricks that are used in those buildings tend to be made in kilns that were often owned by coal miners. They were part of the activity of coal mines. The rest of the structure would be made with steel or iron, which was also produced by burning coal, usually in Lanarkshire.”
Its key industries, Gibbs says, were powered by coal. “Textile production was increasingly powered by steam engines over the course of the 19th century. Ship-building and railway engineering used steam engines in so many different ways. They were reliant on steel, which is produced using coal and the factories themselves would burn coal.
“But also they produced products which were coal-fired technologies. When Glasgow rose to industrial prominence it produced 20 percent of the world’s ship-building tonnage in the early 20th century, on the back of its link to coal technologies.”
The city’s social amenities and social life were also dependent on the fossil fuel. Coal-burning power stations provided light and electricity for much of the 20th century. Pinkston power station powered its tram system.
“Until about the 1960s almost all electricity in Scotland was coal-produced,” says Gibbs, “so anything that used electricity then was coal-fired.”
The black, black oil
It took a long time for Glasgow’s and Scotland’s coal era to finally end. Scotland, Gibbs notes, was still producing electricity from coal up until 2016: “We’re only just leaving the coal age behind.”
There were several reasons for the decline in Glasgow’s use of coal over the 20th century. One is that a post-industrial Glasgow used less for manufacturing. Another is oil. In the middle of the 20th century, Scotland began the shift from a coal-dominated energy to one spear-headed by oil. That marked Glasgow in a multitude of ways. Among them, says Gibbs, is the fact that Glasgow’s tram system “was ripped up in the 1960s and there was a motorway system recklessly driven through the city centre”. The railways too transitioned from coal to diesel-powered trains.
At the same time the sources of Glasgow’s electricity changed. “A lot of policy-maker faith,” Gibbs says, “was put in the expected economic returns of nuclear power. Not that far from Glasgow you have the building of Hunterston in the 1960s. But also to some extent there’s even oil-fired electricity generation.”
Glasgow in the first week of November 2021. Roads are closed. To the relief of many, the train strike is off, a pay deal agreed. 400 private jets fly in bringing world leaders and delegates and, with them, according to one calculation, 13,000 tonnes of CO2. Some delegates are flown in from Prestwick on what are called “valet flights”. A motorcade of 20 vehicles escorts US President Joe Biden.
Meanwhile, news emerges that delegates are being given one thing that inhabitants of Glasgow do not have access to, and which will likely make their movements easier – an Oyster-like smartcard that gives free access around Glasgow on trains, Subway and buses.
The Glasgow transport experience known to most residents is not, on this level, one these delegates experience. As Ellie Harrison, Get Glasgow Moving campaigner and author of The Glasgow Effect, notes they are “getting a really privileged view of Glasgow”.
“With this integrated smartcard it will feel like there is an integrated public transport system in Glasgow, because they can use it on the bus, the subway or the train. That’s something we’ve been campaigning for for five years.”
Transport is one of the city’s biggest emissions headaches – and one that has seen very little progress down the path towards net zero. Much of the publicity around net zero transport has focussed on electric cars. But Glasgow, like all cities, can’t accomodate a congested future where electric cars for all is the norm, even if they were affordable. Notably currently less than half the population have a car at all.
In this context the question is how will we travel in a net zero future? Active travel – walking and cycling – is not suitable for everyone. The answer, as Harrison advocates, is a better, greener, more extensive and integrated public transport network. “Improving public transport is a win-win,” she says, “not just for reducing carbon but for reducing inequalities and including a lot more people in the cultural-social economy of the city. Transport is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions. It’s also the only one that hasn’t been reduced since the Scottish Government’s first climate act in 2009.”
One of Harrison’s chief gripes is that the bus system, delivered by multiple private companies, doesn’t provide an adequate service. Since 2016 she has been campaigning for its re-regulation. “Since the buses were deregulated in 1986, the service has deteriorated. Many routes have been cut, many areas have been left deserted.”
We also need, Harrison says, to relook at our city infrastructure. Among those elements she thinks should be removed is the M8 itself. She notes that repairs like those at Woodside Viaduct, are hugely costly.
“It’s shocking,” she says, “that nobody here has the foresight, like the mayor of Seoul, or leaders in Utrecht, who decided to remove the motorway.”
Keeping ourselves warm
We humans living in colder climes need to conserve or harness heat and insulate against its loss. How we have done that has changed over the centuries – first through peat, then, during the centuries of urbanisation and industrialisation, through coal, and now through the fossil fuel we call simply “gas”.
Now, if we are to hit our net zero targets, we need to wean ourselves off that gas too. It’s one of our biggest challenges and various solutions have been proposed.
Perhaps most promising for cities is a form of district heating based around the heat pump, a concept dreamt up by Lord Kelvin in Glasgow in 1852. West Dunbartonshire is already home, in Clydebank, to a pioneering development of such a facility, part-created by Glasgow-based firm Star Renewable Energy.
Its sustainable development director, David Pearson, believes a multitude of individual heat pumps is not the solution – which is why we need district heating. “You cannot decarbonise the centre of a big city with individual heat pumps. A heat pump doesn’t magic heat from nowhere. Either it takes it out of the ground or out of fresh air or out of water. If it’s cooling down air, you’re throwing away cold air into the city. You can’t have every single building blowing out cold air. Not in the centre anyway, though that’s fine for the suburbs.”
The approach Star took when they created their pioneering district heating network in Clydebank was to extract heat from the river.
“In Scotland,” Pearson notes, “all the major cities are on rivers and the ability to take heat out of the rivers is massive. If we repeat what we’ve done in Clydebank 25 times, there’s enough heat for all the central area of Glasgow.”
It’s also safer, he says, as a system than green hydrogen, as well as more efficient. “If you take a kilowatt hour of electricity from an offshore windfarm and turn it into hydrogen and pipe it to someone’s house and burn it, you get about half a kilowatt hour of heat. If you took the same kilowatt hour from a windfarm into a heat pump in somebody’s house, you get three units of heat. It’s six times as effective.”
Fighting fuel poverty
A big fear, of course, particularly in this time of gas crisis, is that it’s going to be unaffordable. The monumental transition to net zero heat could leave many more suffering from fuel poverty. Not only that, but this expensive heat we have created will immediately leak out from our draughty old buildings.
That said, there has also already been a lot of good talk from national and local government around tackling poverty and inequality. Glasgow’s Climate Plan advocates ensuring that the transition to “a net-zero society is a catalyst for building a fairer, healthier, prosperous, resilient and greener city for all”. Standards have been set for new-build social housing. But that fair city is a long way off.
Fraser Stewart is an energy policy researcher and activist, who grew up in a scheme and knows what it’s like to experience fuel poverty. He says: “My vision is that we start to make energy work actively against poverty and inequality and in favour of jobs and justice.
“We already know that places like Glasgow have enormous amounts of housing stock that are very energy inefficient, quite poor quality, leaky and cause emissions. That same energy inefficiency causes people to have high energy bills and that typically hits the poor people disproportionately.”
The first thing he believes needs to be done is that we “properly scale up en masse these big retrofit initiatives to make houses and flats and buildings more energy-efficient.”
That, for him is the foundation of the change that needs to happen. “Then build on top of that, whether that’s solar, wind, heat pumps, trying to maximise the clean energy we generate and maximise the benefit we can bring to people who need it.”
This is an interconnected world of multinationals and global investments, and it only takes a walk round the streets of Glasgow to see that there are big companies there that connect to emissions or deforestation elsewhere.
Such a walk is exactly what activist Scott Tully, of Glasgow Calls Out Polluter, is doing during COP26 when he will be out on the streets, guiding a Toxic Tour of what he classes as some of the city’s “major” greenhouse gas polluters.
First up on the tour is one of COP26’s partners, SSE, who Tully says are, “massively responsible for accelerating climate breakdown by expanding gas and by emissions generated within Scotland itself.” Among SSE’s gas-fired plants are Peterhead, Keadby 2, Keadby 3 and Keadby Hydrogen.
That’s followed by Scottish Power which may seem a surprising choice, given that the company have been powering forward on renewables in Scotland and now boast that 100 percent of the electricity they produce is from renewables. But, Tully says, its parent company, Iberdrola, has an “absolutely terrible track record”. A 2020 carbon footprint of nearly 73 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, made Iberdrola top of the carbon footprint list of COP26 principal partners recently produced by The Ferret.
It’s on from there to Teekay shipping, whose Glasgow office coordinates the shipping of liquefied natural gas (LNG). “Glasgow,” he says, “is the coordinating hub for that right across the world. There’s something a bit disquieting about this kind of activity being coordinated from an office in Glasgow. Sometimes the banal face of climate breakdown goes under the radar.”
Finally, the last stop is outside the recently built new Barclays campus in Tradeston. “Barclays,” notes Tully, “are Europe’s biggest financier of fossil fuels according to a report by Rainforest Action Network.” In the past week it was revealed that Barclays has financed more fossil fuel projects than any of the UK’s largest banks in 2021, financing £4.1 billion of fossil fuel projects from January till the summit.
Tully’s tour is a reminder that the city is not a sealed-off entity – it has tentacles that stretch out through the world. Any calculation of Glasgow as carbon city has to take on board some of that. Yet, of course, it tends not to. So much is missing. Only recently, for instance, was the decision made for international shipping and aviation to be included in the UK carbon budget.
That’s a reminder of the wider problem in our current net zero accounting. There are many emissions, like those embedded in the imported products we consume, that should be on the ledger attached to our lifestyles, or that of our city or country. Yet they are not. They are elsewhere. They are someone else’s problem.
So, who is to blame for that great cloud of carbon emissions we injected into the atmosphere? Is it James Watt? “Father of capitalism” Adam Smith? Is it those who live in the cities they left behind? Is it us? Or do we blame the richest one percent of the world’s population who, according to Oxfam have been responsible for more than twice the carbon pollution as the poorest half of humanity in recent decades?
History matters because we still live with its legacies. One of the moral shifts of our time has been a focus on acknowledging past guilts and gains. Jean-François Mouhot, author of Past Connections and Present Similarities in Slave Ownership and Fossil Fuel Usage, has compared the exploitation of fossil fuels with that of slavery. The comparison may seem insensitive – one, a non-living substance, the other humans – yet there is similarity, a shared attitude of exploitation without thought for impact.
In the future, will there be reparations? Will there be restorative climate justice? These are all questions yet to be played out. Yet the issue of historic fairness hovers over some current COP26 agreements. Climate finance for developing nations may be driven mostly by a desire to save ourselves through helping poorer countries decarbonise, but it can also be seen as repayment of our own debt.
Those who might be unhappy with UK’s contribution, might want to remember that the infrastructure we live in today, whether it be in Glasgow, or other parts of Scotland, was built from emissions.
We took our carbon loan out early – we made our dear carbon place – and this is one way of paying it back.