Analysis: What is Nicola Sturgeon's role in COP26?

3 November 2021, 12:23

The Scottish First Minister has made a number of appearances at COP26, despite the fact it is officially hosted by the UK Government
The Scottish First Minister has made a number of appearances at COP26, despite the fact it is officially hosted by the UK Government. Picture: Alamy
Gina Davidson

By Gina Davidson

On any given Tuesday Nicola Sturgeon can usually be found in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament giving her Covid statement. Yesterday that sombre job was done by her health minister Humza Yousaf, as the First Minister had far bigger fish to fry.

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It’s hard to believe that some 21 months ago Claire Perry O’Neill, the then COP26 President elect for the UK, was dumped by the new PM, after suggesting Nicola Sturgeon be given a high profile role at the UN Summit. Over his dead body, or words to that effect, were muttered by Mr Johnson as Ms Perry O’Neill exited stage right.

Rumours abounded - mostly from Downing Street - that Scotland’s First Minister would be frozen out of the event, which while being held in Glasgow, is hosted by the UK Government. Under no circumstances was it to be in any way used by the SNP leader as a platform for Scottish independence.

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Fast forward to September this year and Mr Johnson appeared to have had a Damascene conversion. Now Nicola Sturgeon was to have a "huge role" - not that he could quite say what it would be. However the First Minister is not the sort of person to sit and wait to be told what to do. Neither was there ever a cat in hell’s chance she would allow the largest conference ever to be held in the UK, to take place in her home city without a lot of input from her.

As a result in the run up to COP26 she held a Ted Talk, flew to Iceland to speak to the Arctic Circle on all things environmental, while the UN Climate Change Conference of Youth - which the Scottish Government sponsored - saw her speak to "the conscience of COP" as she put it - 400 young delegates from 120 countries. She’s even appeared in British Vogue.

Since Sunday she has spoken with international media, co-hosted a world leader’s breakfast, rubbed shoulders with Jeff Bezos, Joe Biden, Princess Catherine and Prince William and a whole gamut of heads of state at evening receptions, as well as met with global environmental campaigners Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate. She’s sat on a UN Women’s panel - where she was introduced as "her excellency" - and this evening will deliver a lecture at Strathclyde University.

The First Minister met Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate
The First Minister met Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate. Picture: Alamy

While she will be back in Holyrood for FMQs on Thursday, this weekend will also see her heavily involved in a series of panels and meetings as co-chair of the Under 2 coalition, a COP organisation of small countries and states which represents around 1.75m people and 50 per cent of the global economy.

She is in her element - and her customary heels. While not having an official role she appears to have found a multitude of parts to play and places to be and to be seen. She may not be at the negotiating table but if the number of selfies she has posed for could somehow be turned into energy, the climate crisis could be solved overnight.

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And yet. At her heart is the independence of Scotland, and there will be questions as to the political wisdom of several newspaper adverts on the day world leaders arrived welcoming them to a "nation in waiting", which also described Scotland as "not yet an independent nation". It seems a mis-step in what has so far been a positive, consensual approach by the First Minister towards all things COP.

It may well all sail above the heads of the international delegates, but it won’t have escaped the notice of the UK Government, and will perhaps underline Mr Johnson’s original view that Ms Sturgeon should be kept busy in Edinburgh while COP26 was held.

Not that she will care. Without doubt Nicola Sturgeon already has one eye on the exit door of politics. Next year she will be the longest serving FM Scotland has ever had, so pastures new are undoubtedly beckoning. Her name has been connected to UN roles in the past, and COP26 is the perfect networking opportunity. She is making the most of it.