Glasgow: Leading the UK’s Race to Net-Zero Carbon

Calendar 8 Oct 2020
Time 4.00 pm – 4.40 pm, GMT+8 
Location Zoom
cpdSILA CPD Pts, 2 SIP CPD Pts 
BOA-SIA members: no lectures or webinars will award CPD points this year as CPD requirements are waived


Glasgow aims to become the UK’s first carbon-neutral city by 2045, an ambitious target that will boost the UK’s contribution to global climate action. Councillor Susan Aitken sits down with urbanist Greg Clark for an in-depth conversation about climate change, cities and leadership, and about how Glasgow is de-carbonising its economy and infrastructure.

Image of synopsis on Glasgow webinar

Webinar Video




Fireside Chat Questions (PDF: 167KB)

Webinar Takeaways

Hosting the COP26 UN Climate Summit will accelerate Glasgow’s net-zero carbon plans

Climate change and the ecological emergency are “not abstract or hypothetical”, but are real issues, and Glasgow is determined to contribute to global climate action with its plans to achieve net-zero carbon by 2030, said Councillor Aitken. The COP26 UN Climate Summit, to be hosted by Glasgow from 1st to 12th November 2021, will “concentrate minds to the task at hand” and accelerate the city’s plans, she said. Glasgow’s strategy focuses on decarbonising its transport and domestic heat sectors as these are the two largest sources of carbon emissions.

COP26 is critical, said the Councillor, as it will decide whether nations commit to investing the necessary resources to deliver on the commitments they promised in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. “We’ve got this window to do something, and I don’t want to have wasted this time,” she added. “We have to respond to these issues and we don’t have time to mess around.”

Prof. Clark said that it was both exciting and inspiring to see the net-zero carbon agenda emerging as “the next stage in Glasgow’s renaissance” as the post-industrial city builds momentum to transform itself.

COVID-19 can be a catalyst for quick, positive urban change

As with the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed difficulties for Glasgow, said Councillor Aitken. Glasgow made it its top priority to tackle the spread of the virus by temporarily imposing lockdown, which in turn led to the suspension of construction activities. For a city currently in the midst of an ambitious physical transformation to deliver greener infrastructure and housing, this was a setback. But Councillor Aitken told Prof. Clark that this was the right approach to take, as public health must be at the centre – together with carbon reduction – of a sustainable and green economic recovery from the pandemic.

The Councillor shared that COVID-19 has in some cases been “a catalyst for quick change”, such as in Glasgow’s “Spaces for People” programme. Responding to urgent calls for safe distancing outdoors, the city’s urban planners moved quickly to convert many car parks into cycling lanes, wider sidewalks, and spaces for outdoor dining. This has been achieved in six months, and Glasgow hopes to make the changes permanent. Councillor Aitken added: “If we can do this in response to a public health emergency, we can do this in response to a climate emergency.”

Ultimately, Glasgow wants to create safe, less congested spaces that are designed for people rather than cars, with accessible public transport, cleaner air, and where walking and cycling will “feel like the natural thing to do”.

Sustainability, public health and social justice are linked

Councillor Aitken emphasised that Glasgow sees its pursuit of net-zero carbon as closely linked to public health and social justice, and described how the city’s history as an industrial centre has made these connections evident.

Referring to how the city’s role since the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century as an important centre for coal mining, iron founding and shipbuilding led to heavy air pollution, Councillor Aitken noted that Glasgow’s economy has historically not prioritised health. The high-carbon economy of today, including widespread car use, continues to damage peoples’ health, she said. This is both a public health and a social justice issue, not only for Glasgow but also other cities, as poor air quality continues to harm and kill urban dwellers.

Seeing and understanding these links informs how Glasgow shapes its urban plans and invests its resources, and is an important motivator as Glasgow fights to achieve net-zero carbon, said Councillor Aitken. “For Glasgow, social justice and climate justice go hand-in-hand,” she said.

Reducing carbon increases liveability

Prof. Greg Clark noted that fighting climate change by decarbonising infrastructure and economies brings not only environmental benefits but also improves liveability for people. Agreeing, Councillor Aitken said that there is a “direct link” between carbon and liveability, using motor transport and housing as key examples of this.

In Glasgow, she said, motor transport is the largest source of carbon emissions. This lowers air quality and damages peoples’ health. Reducing and removing private motor traffic from the city’s roads, and making public transport, walking and cycling more widespread and accessible, will improve liveability. A top priority for Glasgow is to expand and green its public transport infrastructure, including decarbonising its bus fleet and possible plans for a city-wide metro system.

The same link between carbon and liveability holds true for how the city’s residents are housed, she added. One-third of Glaswegians live in “fuel poverty” as they spend an excessive amount of their income paying for high heating costs in buildings that are not energy-efficient. Investing in energy-efficient homes with a lower reliance on carbon means investing in peoples’ wellbeing and health.

Lastly, Councillor Aitken spoke about Glasgow’s plans to transform tracts of vacant and derelict land in the city into green space and low-carbon communities that will improve the lives of residents.

Ensuring that workers and economies are prepared for a zero-carbon world is a moral responsibility

Asked by Prof. Clark about the business and job opportunities that a net-zero carbon economy can provide, Councillor Aitken drew on Glasgow’s history to illustrate how important it is take action now to prepare workers and economies for the coming zero-carbon world.

While Glasgow was a booming industrial centre – “the workshop of the world” – in the 19th century and early 20th century, the city had no economic transition plan in place when heavy industry began to decline, said Councillor Aitken. Entire communities were left behind as a result, she said, and Glasgow is still left with the social legacy of that today.

“We can’t allow that to happen again. We know that some of our current industry and economy is going to become obsolete when we move to a zero-carbon world. We need to move now to ensure that new jobs and skills exist, and that people have pathways to these new industries,” said Councillor Aitken. “This is a moral responsibility for both national and local governments.”

One big opportunity for Glasgow is in retrofitting and greening – rather than bulldozing – the city’s existing housing. The built environment sector, along with the green technology and renewable energy sectors, will provide enormous opportunities for workers. But policymakers have to make sure that people pick up the skills to access these opportunities, said Councillor Aitken. Prof. Clark summed up that net-zero carbon efforts are “not only an agenda for frugality, but also a way to generate new kinds of prosperity.”

The way to include community is to let them lead, not to hector them

Touching on community engagement, Prof. Clark asked how Glasgow – a city renowned for its strong community identity – would engage Glaswegians in its net-zero carbon plans. 

Councillor Aitken stressed that the city’s approach would not be top-down, as Glaswegians in particular have a strong culture of not liking to be told what to do. Rather, young people have been taking the lead in local zero-carbon efforts in communities and this would continue, she said, referring to the widespread climate strikes in 2019, lobbying by schoolchildren against single-use plastics, and community-led housing associations.

“Young people will be front and centre of these efforts as their parents are more likely to listen to them than to politicians,” said Councillor Aitken. “There is no point in hectoring people…the way is to show them that we are doing things to improve their lives.” Partnering communities in this way would be more effective than a top-down approach in nudging behavioural change, she said.

About the Speakers


Susan Aitken

Councillor Susan Aitken
Glasgow City Council

Councillor Susan Aitken became Leader of Glasgow City Council when the SNP became the largest party on the Council and formed a minority administration in May 2017. She was elected as a councillor for the Langside ward, where she lives, in 2012. She has been leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) group since 2014, having previously served as the group spokesperson on health and social care. She is the SNP’s national Local Government Convener.


Greg Clark

Prof Greg Clark CBE
Connected Places Catapult

Prof Greg Clark CBE is a renowned global expert on cities, urban innovation and mobility. He is Group Senior Advisor for Future Cities & New Industries at HSBC. He holds numerous other appointments, including as moderator of the World Cities’ Summit Mayors Forum, Chairman of Connected Places Catapult and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. He has worked with more than 200 cities in 5 continents, and is the author of 10 books. Core themes of his work are urban economies, cities and climate change, metropolitan global identity, and financing future cities.


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