We sat down recently with the Climate Negotiator, Ulfath Ibrahim, who completed her MSc in Environment and Development from the University of Edinburgh in 2021 and is one of the  University of Edinburgh’s Climate 75 – alumni who are making an impact and contributing to positive change.

Based in the Maldives, Ulfath returned to the University earlier this month to discuss her involvement in the negotiating blocks who fought (and won) to put the Loss and Damage Fund on the international agenda at COP27 (the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties).

Ulfath Ibrahim stands under a sign reading 'Hurry up please, it's time'

In her career, Ulfath has worked in areas encompassing research, international relations and public policy. She acted as a session coordinator at Climate Exp0, represented her country at COP25 in Madrid, COP26 in Glasgow and COP27 in Egypt, and carried out research on blue carbon ecosystems in the Maldives for her dissertation. Prior to coming to the University of Edinburgh, Ulfath worked as a negotiator, and she continues to work in the climate negotiation space, acting as the Assistant Director at the Special Envoy Office for Climate Change of the Maldives.

What piqued your interest in Climate Change?

“I was quite aware of climate change from an early age – witnessing changes to the beaches and coral bleaching episodes – then later in my career, I noticed that any meeting with foreign dignitaries always involved some form of discussion on climate change. A large part of motivation for my work is wanting my young nieces and nephews to experience the beaches and marine life of the Maldives as I did.

Here in the Maldives, we are very connected to our ocean and islands – it is a part of our identity and our culture. Yes, we could move on to another land, another country, but we will leave behind our way of life, and that’s why we continue to actively engage in international climate negotiations, especially on mitigation, climate finance, adaptation and loss and damage. Our land is important to us and is linked to our culture, our heritage, and we want our children to be able to experience it and continue to live life here in the Maldives.”

What are your key takeaways from COP 27?

“I always go into COP with what I call ‘cautious optimism’, being no stranger to the deliberation processes involved in such a conference. Though the process may seem slow, I believe it to be an effective process to date for international agreement on climate related issues. Everyone often asks why is it so slow? But, when you think about it, it is over 190 countries having to agree on every word on the paper, so it’s a difficult process, but I feel like it’s the only process that brings all these countries together to one table and that is phenomenal.

Fighting for a loss and damage fund at COP27 was a significant achievement. We worked together with colleagues in AOSIS and G77 & China on an issue which has been an area of appeal for small islands for the last 30 years. The fund seeks to redress the imbalance which has arisen from the failure of high emitting countries to mitigate their emissions, leaving low emitting states to figure out the impacts of these emissions on their own. A colleague summed up the scenario with a powerful image: ‘All the elephants were fighting and we, the small islands, were the grass that was getting crushed’. The area of mitigation did not witness as much success, but I consider the fund to be a crucial step for climate justice. But of course, there is still much to do between now and COP 28 to make the fund operational.”

What role do you think universities can play in tackling the climate crisis and aiding island states in their battle against the impacts of climate change?

“The University has a huge platform and there are so many ways in which it can help amplify the messages we are putting across in the negotiation rooms. These amplified messages can be linked with research to bridge the gap for students and the wider society between academia and policy, as the former guides the latter. I see universities acting as trend setters in terms of moving away from fossil fuels, and fossil fuel funding, towards sustainability and transparency.”

What are your hopes for the future around climate change?

“I am focused on the issue of loss and damage and working towards operationalizing the fund. The ideal outcome from COP27 would have been concrete action plans on climate change mitigation. The loss and damage win was a compromise, and you always make compromises.

I hope in the near future, mitigation is tackled, nationally determined contributions (NDCs) are strengthened, and that we remain below the 1.5°C global temperature target. We need a lot of political commitment and trust, and the ability to think beyond your country to include other smaller countries — and empathy is essential for arriving at this mindset.”

What advice would you like to give students working in the climate change sector?

“I encourage having your own principles and sticking to them. At the end of the day, I think – I’m doing this for my country, for all the reefs that are dying, and because I want my nieces and nephews to grow up in the Maldives and be able to see thriving living things – these are the core principles that guide me. When you work in these political spaces where one person is saying one thing and the other person is saying another, it is your own values and principles that keep you going in the right direction, so they are important wherever you work.”