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Our dear green place

Glasgow is the perfect city for COP26.

Newsletter from 29 October 2021

Daniel Defoe was a spy and trader as well as a travel writer, so he got to know the world pretty well. In the early 1700s, he reported on a trip to Glasgow, finding it ‘the cleanest and beautifullest, and best-built city in Britain, London excepted’. According to some etymologists, the word Glasgow has Celtic roots, and means ‘green hollow’ or ‘dear green place’.

This makes Glasgow the perfect place to hold a climate summit. In the 20th century, the city’s reputation fell: in the 1960s, it was famed for gangs, unemployment and industrial decline; and in the 1990s, it was defined by low life expectancy and an urban environment pockmarked with demolition sites. This city knows the human costs when policy fails, an economy tanks and the environment is damaged.

The root causes go back decades—to the loss of the shipping industry in the 1960s. My own travels to the city introduced me to people for whom work vanished and who took solace in drink and heroin. The East End of Glasgow bears the brunt of the low life expectancy that has resulted (hover over the points in the chart above to find the district). Drug deaths in Scotland, a large share of them Glaswegian fatalities, continue to rise.

In the new issue of our printed magazine, launching on Wednesday 3 November, our writers show that policy is failing on a global scale. The evidence comes from first-hand experience, including Jane Goodall’s 60 years of primate research and Mya-Rose Craig’s knowledge of life in rural Bangladesh. And it comes from cutting-edge scholarship using reams of data and the latest modelling. Whatever the methodology, the story is the same: the climate crisis is not something on the horizon, it started years ago and we are doing too little to battle it.

We are making catastrophic measurement errors. Ilan Noy’s article on extreme weather notes that this year’s spring was the earliest since records began in Kyoto. The records go back 800 years. He explains how outdated analysis means we underestimate the costs. Some of the charts and data are devastating: based on current trends, in 2050 by weight, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. A proper calculation of all the costs—health, economic, social—that come with environmental damage would demand we do more.

But taking action will be hard, as tensions quickly emerge. The UK’s wealth rests on the historic use of coal, as John Turner explains, and so telling lower-income countries to clean up is tough. Carbon taxes work—they push up the cost of fossil fuels—but this hurts the rural poor.

Against all the odds, there are reasons for optimism. People, firms and governments all like things that are cheap. And as Dimitri Zenghelis shows, the price of clean energy is tumbling: simply cutting costs is the new way to be green. But a sustainable economy be a just one: by carefully picking through the policy detail, Cristina Peñasco and colleagues plot a route forward. And while Glasgow bears the scars of its past, it is once again known for its innovation, green parks, and the arts. The dear green place is a city that offers both warnings and reasons to hope.

Observatory news

  • We are up in Glasgow next week for COP26, running an event in partnership with the University of Glasgow and the Government Economic Service. To find out more about the event, click here.
  • As part of the event, we will be launching the next issue of our magazine, ECO. To order a free copy, click here. Digital copies will also be available from Wednesday 3 November.
  • Don’t forget to sign up for our conference in November – Talking Economics.
  • If you haven’t done so already, please fill out this short survey and let us know how we are doing. It shouldn't take more than 5-10 minutes and will be incredibly helpful as we continue to develop the Economics Observatory.
Author: Richard Davies
Picture by Roman Akash on Unsplash
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