Montage image of 4 women.

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Edinburgh’s sustainability superwomen

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The University’s primary aim, set out in its Strategy 2030, is for Edinburgh graduates to make the world a better place. When the UN COP26 conference launched in Glasgow, it quickly became apparent that this global event was also a showcase of our graduates doing just that.

Here we meet four Edinburgh alumnae, from different continents of the world, who were invited to COP26 to represent their countries in the fight to make all our futures more secure.

Edinburgh alumna, Ulfath Ibrahim, in a white blazer with arms crossed smiling to camera.
Ulfath Ibrahim, MSc Environment & Development

Ulfath Ibrahim completed her masters at Edinburgh in 2020, having chosen the programme because it was a great fit with her undergraduate studies, and because of her academic supervisor.

“My dissertation journey was wonderful,” she enthuses. “I was encouraged to step out of my comfort zone and research blue carbon ecosystems of the Maldives. By the end of the dissertation, I not only received a distinction, but I also formed a close relationship with my supervisor who helped me connect with a large network of brilliant ocean advocates and environmentalists.

“One thing any student wants after postgraduate studies is to build and expand on your dissertation topic. Through Dr Meriweather Wilson and Professor Sandy Tudhope, I got the opportunity to facilitate a session on ocean climate as part of the TED Countdown Summit in Edinburgh.”

During the summit Ulfath was introduced to many NGOs: “The most interesting for me was to get the opportunity through the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) to share my research on blue carbon ecosystems with MPs. It was a remarkable opportunity and my supervisors fully supported and guided me through this process as well. I remember being at the House of Commons thinking about the decisions I made and the people I met that lead me to that point.”

Acting on opportunities

Ulfath’s working life began as a protocol assistant in the offices of the Maldives’ President, where she handled ministerial protocol and foreign correspondence. When the Maldives’ new administration announced that climate change would become a key pillar of their foreign policy, Ulfath expressed interest to take on the portfolio. Being trusted and given the opportunity to manage it was a turning point that steered her towards a career in international climate negotiations.

“My first experience as a negotiator with the Maldives flag was hugely empowering for many reasons,” states Ulfath. “First, it felt great to represent the Maldives as a woman in climate negotiations where men are typically overrepresented in many national delegations. Sitting in the negotiation rooms fighting for the rights of the Maldives and other similar small island developing states easily became what I wanted to do as a career. I needed no convincing – the fight to save my home and the planet helped me to set my moral compass and that is what I wanted out of a job as well.”

Being at the crux of international negotiations inspired Ulfath to pursue a more in-depth understanding of climate science and policy, which led her to apply for and secure a Chevening Scholarship to study at the University of Edinburgh in 2020. On completion of her postgraduate studies, she joined the Maldives’ climate negotiation team in Glasgow. Of that group Ulfath reports with an enormous smile: “We are a small team but a very fierce one.”

Edinburgh graduate, Adriane Guiterrez, sat behind a desk at COP26 with a Colombia sign in front of her.
Adriana Gutierrez, MSc Carbon Management

For fellow Edinburgh graduate Adriana Gutierrez, choosing to study at Edinburgh was inspired by slightly different influences. Similarly to Ulfath, Adriana’s undergraduate degree influenced her postgraduate choices, and Edinburgh offered exactly the kind of academic content she was looking for. But her final persuasion? “The answer is simple,” she explains with a grin. “At the time no other country or city had this programme, but also Edinburgh is the heart of J K Rowling’s inspiration to write the plot of Harry Potter, so for me it was like being hit twice by cupid.”

Now a negotiator on behalf of the Colombian government, Adriana credits her postgraduate degree, studied in 2014, as being the first lever for her to enter the United Nations as an intern, and for her following roles too.

“Becoming the negotiator wasn’t something I planned,” she says modestly. “I started working at the Colombian ministry as an adviser and while I was fulfilling my other tasks, the previous negotiator received a job offer he always wanted, so his resignation created the necessity to assign someone that role.

“I had recently achieved my Masters’ in Carbon Management, and also I had shown my expertise in mitigation, markets and international relations; the former director offered me the spot, to which I happily said yes, and that’s how I achieved one of my dreams. I’ve now been on this awesome journey for three years,” she smiles.

Edinburgh graduate, Gail Sant, standing in front of a building with arms crossed and smiling down to camera.
Gail Sant, MSc Marine Systems & Policies

Gail Sant had very recently completed her studies when she was selected to represent her home country of Malta, at the United Nations Climate Conference of Youth (COY16) and through her dissertation research she was invited to attend COP26. Her decision to study at Edinburgh was also about the course content, but another consideration was finance.

“I looked for masters programmes all over Europe, but none compared to this programme. Deciding to do it during the pandemic was a tricky choice. What truly pushed me to take on this challenge was the fact that this was the final year I would qualify for home fees as opposed to international fees. Thus, I took a leap of faith and accepted that my experience would be different to my pre-covid expectations.” But Gail found that it went “above and beyond”.

“My programme coordinators, Dr Lea-Anne Henry and Dr Sebastian Hennige, did everything in their power to make our masters a pleasurable learning experience, despite being in lockdown for most of it,” she smiles. “My supervisor, Dr Meriwether Wilson, didn’t simply guide me through my dissertation, but constantly took interest in my ambitions and personal goals. She and Professor Sandy Tudhope, my second marker and a role model of mine, even got me to facilitate an event at the TED Climate Countdown event in October, where I was introduced to the UN Special Envoy for the Ocean. The incredible opportunities I’ve had over autumn all lead back to my dissertation.”

Building a network

From this Gail felt able to apply to attend the Conference of Youth, for which she was quickly selected. Once at COY16, she had a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” when she met with the UN President of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid. Of that meeting she recalls with quiet authority how she: “told him what climate actions I’d like to see take precedence. I spoke about the need to recognise that there is no climate action without ocean action, and the need to incorporate ocean solutions into climate policy. I also emphasised that the issue of climate change is a social issue, and justice needs to be at the heart of climate policy.”

Following on from COY16, she was offered a role at COP26 as a reporter and event facilitator, in the Resilience Lab pavilion in the Blue Zone, where she wrote daily reports that were published on Earth Negotiations Bulletin and hosted an event about transboundary considerations, which she used as an opportunity to highlight those communities most vulnerable to displacement.

“I wanted to represent the demographic which will be impacted the most, youth,” Gail explains. “I invited youth delegates, activists, and NGO representatives to share personal stories about how boundaries have impacted them.”

Edinburgh graduate, Forget Shareka, stood outside the Business School in a white blazer coat smiling down to camera.
Forget Shareka, MSc Entrepreneurship & Innovation

Forget Shareka won her place on the competitive Mastercard Foundation Scholars programme, which supports students from Africa with great academic and leadership potential. She chose to study her MSc in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Edinburgh, to acquire relevant knowledge of the business world that she could use in the work she does in Zimbabwe, encouraging youth participation in sustainable agri-business.

For Forget the journey to represent Zimbabwe at COP26 was not an easy one. Like many, she faces climate change impact every day, which is what she says compels her to stand up for action now and for the next generation.

“There is a need to re-shape and re-imagine agriculture in Africa and make it more appealing to young people,” says Forget. “My business Chashi Foods, and many other youth-led agri-enterprises, have been proving that agri-business is the future for Africa. My degree from the Edinburgh Business School is important for this transition.”

Taking the initiative

Forget’s involvement with COP had also begun early in the month of November at COY16, where she was the delegate for Zimbabwe.

“I had the opportunity to share my experience about the role of girls’ education in enabling improvements in productivity, sustainability and climate resilience in agriculture,” she explains. “From there, I proceeded to COP26 where I became a delegate, speaker and observer.” Forget’s immediate dynamism and energy explain how she took this so easily in her stride.

She continues: “I had the opportunity to speak in a panel forum on the Gender Day in the Green Zone, about African women’s grassroots climate action, and I chaired a panel discussion in the Blue Zone at the UK Presidency Pavilion on girls’ education and tackling the climate crisis, which was opened by the Minister for Europe and the Americas, Wendy Morton.”

Forget also managed to attend biodiversity forums, the sustainable innovation forum, financing sustainable cities for the future, and discussions about loss and damage.

“My major role was amplifying the voices of young girls, youth, smallholder and family farmers in Zimbabwe and Sub-Saharan Africa who are at the frontline of climate urgency but had no seat at this high-level, global conference for climate action and justice,” Forget explains starkly.

Group of Zimbabwean farm workers working in a field with trees and hills in the backdrop.
Zimbabwean farmers

Female leadership

Forget was also there to represent the Campaign for Female Education Organisation better known as CAMFED. This is a growing network of 178,000 women leaders who were supported to go to school by the association.

“We are committed to ploughing back the benefits of our education and working together to tackle the big challenges our nations face,” explains Forget.

“Female leadership is an inclusive type of leadership that pursues not self-interest but benefits everyone,” she continues. “We female leaders in our actions and decision-making processes, we think of ourselves – not individualism. In short, female leadership means success for all, and it is the answer to some of the global challenges ranging from inequalities, access to quality health, poverty eradication, economic development, zero hunger etc. In my community, things are changing for the better from patriarchalism, and most men now are appreciating and recognising female leadership. A lot still has to be done in promoting equity in education, the workplace and high political positions.”

Hopes and disappointments

COP26 attracted enormous attention and many column inches. There was so much expectation surrounding what could be achieved, and since the conference much discussion has arisen around whether or not it was a success. But how was it from the perspective of our participating graduates on the conference floor?

For Ulfath, she had hopes that COP would provide positive outcomes on priority issues for small island developing states like the Maldives.

“The key outcomes of my first COP experience in Madrid were quite disappointing,” she says. “After two weeks of fraught negotiations, parties were unable to reach consensus on many key areas. So I went into COP26 negotiations only being cautiously optimistic. But without some level of optimism it is difficult to keep negotiating for two weeks long, from early morning until late into the night.

“My greatest hopes for COP26 were that we can find a credible and ambitious pathway to bend the curve to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, and that the negotiations would lead to a profound system change that will lead to positive outcomes on loss and damage, and mobilisation of finance for adaptation.”

Conference centre in Glasgow at night.
The conference centre where COP26 took place in Scotland

Adriana wasn’t expecting the results that transpired: “I thought we would clean up most of the text but would have to finish the crunchy issues in Egypt at COP27 next year. My personal hope was to have the best set of rules for the planet, and that included no pre-2020 measurements.”

Gail says she was excited to be part of the Global Youth Statement for COY16. For COP26, having spent the past five months studying earlier COPs, she was looking forward to participating and understanding its workings. In terms of outcomes: “I wanted to see more active ocean dialogue and elements of climate justice take place through reaching the $100bn per year funding target, and direct financial flows into loss and damage.”

Forget says she went to COP26 with high hopes: “I wanted to see global leaders taking action for the climate emergency and keep global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees. I was also hoping for loss and damage finance. I wanted to see youth, women, smallholder farmers and indigenous people included at the conference.”

So did it live up to these intellectual, caring, active, participatory women’s expectations? Was it a success in their particular view?

Small street in the Maafushi island in Maldives flooded with rain water
A flooded street on Maafushi Island in the Maldives

For Ulfath the conference only brought incremental change. “This is not enough progress to be in line with the scale and urgency that the Maldives needs,” she states. “We do not have the luxury of time when it comes to climate change. For the Maldives, climate change is not a distant reality, it is happening now, and it is an emergency for us. I feel that the countries only did the bare minimum in negotiations.”

Adriana described the whole experience as pressurised, heavy-going, but also exciting, she felt her heart racing, throughout. However, regarding the results, she states: “All of the AILAC block, (the negotiating group that Colombia is part of) pushed until the very end to have the highest ambition possible. We are not happy, and I know most countries aren’t happy, but this is the best result we could get and we had to weigh our options to see if it was worth it to delay the process another year.”

Gail described COP as a whirlwind that took over her life, but that she “enjoyed every tiring minute of it.” She was so focused on her work in the Resilience lab that at times she felt she knew less about what was going on at COP than her friends following it in the media. But having had time to reflect since then, her opinion of the conference is that it was neither a success nor a failure.

“I have seen so many articles frame it through such expressions, and I can’t help but be frustrated by these black-or-white titles,” she states. “COP is a multi-layered, mega-complex discussion of terms. Its complex nature hinders radical progress, and while I would have wanted to see more concrete progress in terms of financing and mitigation, I’m glad to see that ocean-based action was recognised in the final outcomes document, and I’m glad to see that funding targets have been scaled up. They are baby steps, but they are still facing the right direction.”

Similarly, Forget says yes and no. “I am satisfied that on the 13 November 2021, COP26 closed with all countries agreeing on the Glasgow Climate Pact to keep 1.5C alive and finalise the outstanding elements of the Paris Agreement. But I am yet to be convinced by action.

“I was disappointed by the overrepresentation of men in the constituted bodies in which 74% of the speakers were men,” she adds. “Also, the percentage of youth who participated in the constituted bodies was relatively low. I hope in COP27 we can do better.”

Group of 5 men and 1 woman walking in a line with masks on at COP26.
Gender imbalance at COP26

Showing up and taking part

There were clearly stand-out moments that will remain with these participants for a long time.

Ulfath describes how she was very pleasantly surprised that Article 6 negotiators from the Alliance of Small Island Developing States (AOSIS) block were really enthusiastic: “There was a great sense of solidarity between AOSIS negotiators – I will always fondly remember the long, tiring nights with all of them because this year we finally managed to agree on issues that saw the adoption of decisions to operationalise carbon credit trading, a carbon market, and a framework for non-market-based approaches. With the bang of the gavel for Article 6, we all stood up and cheered for as long as we were allowed to in the plenary!

“Not long after, however, the last-minute intervention by India that saw the language around moving beyond coal weakened in the final text, to ‘phase down’ unabated coal use, was unexpected and very disappointing. As opposed to the gavel bang for Article 6, there were sounds of frustration from nearly everyone in the room. Being at the plenary in these two decisive moments made me realise how complex it was to get parties to agree on issues.”

Indigenous Amazonian women holding up a banner and protesting in Glasgow, 2021
Indigenous Amazonian women protesting in Glasgow, 2021

Adriana loved the whole experience of being at COP, and a stand-out moment for her was: “When we were talking about the Clean Development Mechanism I had to run from one room to another, because I was representing the AILAC block in one room, and had to take the microphone as Colombia to support Costa Rica in another, since it was a crucial moment and we needed more voices.”

Adriana also noticed a difference from previous conferences: “These negotiations had such a heavy technical content that led all the negotiators to talk and strategise more frankly, forgetting the diplomatic setting we were in.”

Gail says that both COY16 and COP26 surpassed her expectations. COY16 introduced her to many like-minded, incredible and ambitious young people. Being able to create an event at COP26 that showcased issues close to her heart was “a very proud moment” and speaking with the UN President was an experience that filled her with a sense of purpose – as well as nerves!

The lasting impressions for Forget came from myriad people, conversations, discussions and meetings. Her overall feeling from COP was the need for compassion for people to be at the heart of climate action and justice in the future.

“There is a need to understand context when dealing with climate change issues because problems being faced by developed and developing countries are different. That implies specific solutions for specific nations. For example, the plant diet solution is the best for developed countries and the worst in developing countries as these countries are already battling a lack of protein type of malnutrition. Climate action efforts have to be rooted in justice for a just transition and for creating a sustainable future.”

Future plans

As for their own personal future hopes and hopes for their home countries? There are a lot of shared values and similar considerations.

Ulfath is returning to the Maldives to work for the Maldives’ Special Envoy for Climate Change. From her perspective, the most important message the world needs to understand?

“It has always been the same. That for small island developing states like the Maldives, the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees is a death sentence. The Maldives needs climate negotiators and I want to help fill this gap.”

Adriana believes the most important message for Colombia to have heard by the rest of the world is “to have environmental integrity and high ambition.”

About her own future she says: “I believe I still have room to grow. What I have learnt from my different experiences is that there is always something new and also that the fastest way to make a change is from the inside. So no matter what comes in the future, I will make the most of it, and I hope I can help the planet while doing so.”

From a European perspective, Gail simply states: “The Mediterranean is turning into a desert.”

She continues: “Every year we experience new weather extremities, making our summers unbearably hot. As a small island state, it is a struggle for our voice to be heard during international dialogues. I believe that Malta needs to enhance its cooperation with other small islands and get an increased collective impact.”

Of her own future Gail “has fallen in love with Edinburgh” and is sharing a flat with a fellow alum while she works remotely as a Youth Ambassador for the UN’s Association for Climate and Oceans and Surfrider Europe. Her research continues, and she hopes to be part of the planning process for the Resilience Lab at COP 27.

Forget believes that for Zimbabwe the message is simple: “Climate change disproportionately affects the African continent yet we contributed the least to global emissions.

She continues: “We demand action and policies that are fair and just for developing countries. We call for collaboration and the burial of geopolitics and selfishness. The climate emergency requires all of us to stand for action and put ourselves in the shoes of the most affected people and act with compassion.”

In her own future, she has the necessary belief: “I have a dream of owning a multinational agribusiness company with headquarters in Africa that will be a legacy in the African agriculture sector. I don’t know yet how I will make it but I am strongly convinced that I am on the right pathway. It’s about taking one necessary step every time.”

With such motivated, intelligent and inspiring individuals driving the sustainability agenda, we must take hope.

Image credits: Zimbabwean farm workers, Bojan Brecelj/Getty Images; Conference centre, Jennifer Sophie/Getty Images; Floods, helovi/Getty Images; Gender imbalance, Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images;Indigenous Women protest, Peter Summers/Getty Images.