Lydia Birtwistle–Sawyer: the NTU alum working at the heart of international climate change diplomacy
Before planning an interview, it’s always wise – and especially courteous – to do your research. Biographies, social media, online articles. All of these sources provide a glimpse into an alum's life and career.
Often, you’re intrigued. Regularly, you’re inspired. Exploring Lydia Birtwistle–Sawyer’s life and career results in a combination of the two. The more you look, the more you’d like to know.
Graduating from NTU in 2014 with a degree in modern languages, Lydia has worked as a strategic advisor to the UK Cabinet Office, senior trade policy advisor for the Department of International Trade, and communications advisor for the National Health Service.
For the more diffident among us, it’s interesting to ponder how well these job titles might roll off the tongue when asked, ‘so, what do you do for a living?’
On social media, Lydia describes herself as a ‘fair-weather cyclist, working in climate diplomacy.’ It’s accurate, but modestly fails to reveal the bigger picture.
In 2021, Lydia began her work as a negotiator for the UK-hosted UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties – COP26.
Held in Glasgow, COP26's remit was to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It saw Lydia lead environmental negotiations concerning the ocean and Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP). Her own remit was preservation – with a view towards ensuring more substantial ocean–based climate action. Lydia also oversaw the link between UN climate change negotiations and the UN Human Rights Council.
A colleague of mine once used an analogy about negotiation – it’s like taking 100 of your friends out to dinner – and expecting them to all agree on the same starter
In January this year, Lydia took the role of Specialist Adviser to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Special Envoy on Climate Change.
Speaking by video call, a time difference between the UK and UAE means that for Lydia, its early evening. We’re fascinated to know what her day has involved, and if there is such a thing as ‘typical’?
“It differs so much,” Lydia says. “I tend to work on big milestones such as COPs, so lots of meetings – often with UN bodies, observer groups, sometimes briefing ministers. Back in the UK during COP26, it was much the same. It can involve foreign travel, like coming to the UAE. Although, I now live here.”
It’s difficult to think of something more important than the causes of, and solutions to, climate change. You’d hope negotiations were harmonious. Are they?
“It’s always an honour to work as a negotiator on behalf of your country, but it can sometimes be a challenge. However like–minded a fellow negotiator is, you’re always aware that they represent the view of their party, government, or organisation. The UK might have its own position on an issue and will hope for a particular outcome. You’ll then become aware of another party who appears to have been given a brief to delay things as much as possible.
“A colleague of mine once used an analogy about negotiation – it’s like taking 100 of your friends out to dinner – and expecting them to all agree on the same starter. You do have to be aware though that negotiators are only human. They might have been working until 2 am, not had time to eat all day, and done five days of negotiations on the trot.”
We’ve already discussed some of Lydia’s work history. Can she track her journey from graduation to today?
“It was a series of little steps,” Lydia adds. “After university, I worked on a project concerning disabilities and was very much interested in social justice. Then came roles in the public sector, before moving into international trade negotiations. I was always interested in understanding issues surrounding climate change, and my ambition was to work as a negotiator in that field – something I started to achieve three years ago.”
It’s said that the best degrees provide you with transferable skills. Was that a consideration for Lydia when choosing to study modern languages?
“Good question,” she ponders. “I’d like to pretend it was! When I was studying at NTU, I initially wanted to go into the field of conference interpretation. I was studying German and thought it would be really cool to be one of the people who listens in to these big events at places like the UN and EU.
“That didn’t happen!” Lydia adds quickly.
“My career has an interesting symmetry though. Instead of working as an interpreter, I’m now actively taking part in international climate change discussions. Studying modern languages is actually quite applicable to taking part in negotiations because you do have to think about the way you communicate. I’m often working with people who don’t speak English as their first language. You need to be able to convince someone that your argument is correct.”
As an undergraduate, Lydia took part in an internship programme that involved study in Berlin.
“It taught me a lot about working in politics,” she says.
“I made loads of friends at NTU – who I still meet regularly. I’m also proud to have help set up the NTU Feminism Society – and even more proud to hear it’s still active.”
Given Lydia’s close involvement with climate negotiations at the very highest level, does she – and therefore we – have cause for optimism?
“I'm definitely optimistic,” she says, “and see amazing work happening all the time. You get to meet some very courageous people – those working as planet activists, in conversation, and on finding solutions – which is the most exciting and the most encouraging thing.”
Are you a member of the NTU alumni and supporter community?
Update your details now and stay connected with our latest news and events and gain access to a wide range of exclusive benefits and services.