Harnessing Edinburgh’s Enlightenment

Edinburgh can choose to lead the world in this year of the global climate summit, say Claire Miller and Steve Burgess

It’s summer – and so the season of destructive flash floods mixed with sweltering days – increasingly the norm in decades ahead. While we may not have seen the corrosive heat afflicting the western seaboard of the USA and Canada, we undoubtedly live in an age of greater extremes.

Right now, November seems a long way away, dark nights and frosts and all. But it is when the eyes of the world will be on Scotland as the global climate summit, COP26 comes to our shores. And, for international negotiations or, still more, meaningful action, 4 months is the blink of an eye. It’s the biggest and most important event ever to come to Scotland and while there will inevitably be an element of circus around it, its deliberations are deadly serious.

So that is why Edinburgh, as Scotland’s capital, needs to forge ahead at greater speed and with bigger ambition on the transformation which all cities are wrestling with – towards a more people and nature-centred city which can live within the planet’s means.

There is absolutely no doubt that Edinburgh can lead the way. Stretching back 250 years, ours is a city of Enlightenment, unafraid to challenge the status quo. Since then we have been home to great scientists and engineers, makers of the modern world.

So it can be frustrating that even modest change now is so hard-won at times. In Dutch, Danish and German cities, transport is being revolutionised towards buses, trains and trams and those who walk, wheel or cycle. Those famously docile Parisiens have twice elected a mayor with a mandate to remove up to half of street parking spaces, to convert to other uses: for greenery, walking or local business. In Sweden, waste systems are being revamped to be cleaner and greener, a far cry from Edinburgh debates about the aesthetics of wheelie bins. Stunning buildings – new and converted – are emerging, with lower energy bills than electric kettles.

There is no doubt about the appetite here in Edinburgh for that kind of change too. A city with cleaner air, reduced congestion, less litter, more trees and green spaces; and with new life breathed into local centres for businesses and public services. But a brighter future can be hard to imagine sometimes and clinging to status quo can seem attractive, often cheer-led by some local politicians who, devoid of ideas or principles of their own, amplify fear of change to fill their void.

That’s not to say that every detailed aspect of every change is right. But, if Edinburgh is to be ahead of the curve, then change comes through innovation and that needs the confidence to try, and adjust in light of experience. Not simply slamming into reverse because that is familiar. Innovation is where Edinburgh has excelled over the decades and centuries and will do so again.

So, as the new co-convenors of the Green group of councillors in the city chambers we want to look forward: forward to COP26 and real impetus globally to a greener future; forward to Edinburgh’s own sustainability strategy and setting the pace to be a zero carbon city by 2030; and forward to the next council elections in May 2022 where the people of the city will have the chance to choose between ‘it’s aye been’ and competing visions of a better future.