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Who’s who at COP28

This article is part of the Road to COP special report, presented by SQM.

The annual U.N. climate summit that starts November 30 has become one of the biggest diplomatic setpieces in the global political calendar. 

Organizers are expecting more than 70,000 people to descend upon Dubai’s Expo City: activists, billionaires, presidents, Indigenous leaders, business executives, monarchs and diplomats from every corner of the world. A few will hold sway over the outcome of the talks. Some will make noise on behalf of vulnerable ecosystems and island nations. Some are looking to make side deals or burnish their images back home.

The world’s two biggest climate decision-makers — U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping — are not expected to show up. But their emissaries will. 

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This is POLITICO’s guide to the most important people to watch. 

Is he the least ideal person to lead an international climate conference at such a critical time? Or could he be just what the world needs?

For al-Jaber’s detractors, including more than 130 lawmakers in the U.S. and Europe, the United Arab Emirates’ decision to put the chief executive of its national oil company at the helm of the summit was a bad joke. “Completely ridiculous,” said Greta Thunberg.

Others hold out hope that al-Jaber might be the ultimate “poacher turned gamekeeper” —able to command unique influence over his peers at the top of the world’s most polluting oil and gas producers.

Central to the COP28 program he’s put forward has been a push to get fossil fuel companies to eliminate their methane emissions by 2030 — cutting out a potent source of the industry’s planet-warming pollution. He also wants them to “align” with goals of cutting net greenhouse gas pollution to zero by 2050. Twenty firms have signed up to those goals already, he has said.

But his legacy from his year as COP president will probably be judged by the language that nearly 200 governments agree to in the coming weeks around fossil fuels. Will they commit to  a “phase-out” — read as ending production entirelyor a more lenient “phase down”? And should they embrace carbon capture, an expensive (and largely unproven) technology that proponents say could allow fossil fuels and aggressive climate action to co-exist.

If countries agree on language that goes easy on the oil and gas giants, al-Jaber’s doubters will say they were right all along.

Biden’s right-hand man on climate since 2021, Kerry — a former U.S. secretary of state and the Democrats’ 2004 presidential candidate — will turn 80 on the summit’s penultimate scheduled day.

Eight years ago, then-Secretary Kerry helped U.S. President Barack Obama secure the landmark Paris Agreement, a global pledge to work to limit the rise in the Earth’s temperatures. This time, as countries struggle to nail down what that means, Kerry’s legacy is very much on the line.

Kerry’s COP28 could be defined by two key relationships, both of which he’s cultivated diligently over the past year and more.

The first is with al-Jaber, the summit president, whom Kerry has known for years. Against a chorus of green critics, Kerry has called the UAE oil chief a “terrific choice,” embracing the idea that you can’t tackle emissions without the fossil fuel companies in the room.

The second relationship is with Kerry’s Chinese opposite number, Xie Zhenhua. The two men met over five days in California three weeks before the summit — securing agreements including a pledge that China would reduce emissions from its power sector this decade. Their joint “Sunnylands Statement” was broadly well-received by climate advocates — and has given COP28 early momentum.

But Kerry faces big challenges before he slices that birthday cake: The U.S. isn’t likely to commit money to a landmark fund for poorer nations’ climate damages, a pot of money that has placed Washington at odds with both developing countries and the European Union. And despite the significant efforts at U.S.-China cooperation, broader friction between the two countries will hang over the summit’s outcomes.

A former small-island champion from Grenada, Stiell took the helm of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change just months before climate talks last year in Egypt. 

His unexpected appointment was welcomed by climate negotiators, who highlighted his past government experience as helpful in moving the climate change secretariat from an era of making pledges to helping turn them into action. 

At climate talks in 2021, he co-led a push to get countries to align their climate plans with the Paris Agreement’s (all-but-unreachable) target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But his role requires him to balance the competing interests of nearly 200 nations, including the petrostate hosting the Dubai talks.

When reporters asked what he thought of COP 28’s biggest controversy to date — the UAE’s decision to tap al-Jaber as summit president — Stiell waded in carefully. “It provides an opportunity to ask some very difficult questions, but also to seek some very difficult but needed answers,” he said.

The 46-member negotiating bloc that represents the world’s so-called least-developed countries combines low-lying Pacific islands, conflict-torn nations and more than half of the countries in Africa. 

When Diouf Sarr took over as chair of the group in January 2022, she was the first woman to lead the 22-year-old bloc and has spoken about the important role women play in international negotiations. Her focus has been on drawing attention to the disparities worsened by climate change.

Senegal, where she heads the climate change division at the country’s environment ministry, will face challenges shifting to clean energy as it develops if it doesn’t receive adequate financial support. A push by President Macky Sall to develop recent oil and gas discoveries only highlights the stark choice facing countries like Senegal. 

The least-developed countries “are home to over 14 percent of the world’s population but use only 1 percent of emissions, and yet we are the ones suffering the greatest costs of the climate crisis,” Diouf Sarr said in a statement following a meeting last month where ministers from the bloc laid out their priorities for COP28. 

She’ll be pushing for clear targets on helping vulnerable countriesadapt to a warming world and for money to flow into a fund for climate damages.

For the first time, a pope is heading to the U.N. climate gathering.

During his tenure, Francis — who took his name from the animal-loving St. Francis of Assisi — has put climate change firmly on the Catholic Church’s agenda. First he issued Laudato Si, an influential 2015 papal encyclical that made an ethical case for climate action. Earlier this year he published a follow-up, Laudato Deum, which carried an appeal for humans to acknowledge natural and ethical limits to economic and technological development.

Skyscraper-obsessed megacity Dubai will be an odd place to try and land that message — but Francis is going to try. He’s in town for the opening stages of the summit, with a speech scheduled for Dec. 2. He’ll hope Xi, Biden, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and others will be listening, even if from afar.

“Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used,” Francis wrote in Laudato Si. He added, “In whose hands does all this power lie, or will it eventually end up? It is extremely risky for a small part of humanity to have it.”   

The biggest negotiating bloc at the COP is the so-called G77 + China. It functions throughout the U.N., was founded in 1964 and now includes 134 countries, encompassing all developing countries.

It’s a big grouping with a wide range of priorities and viewpoints — and there are smaller negotiating blocs within it. But on some core issues — particularly around climate finance —  it stands broadly united.

The rotating chair is held, this year, by Cuba. Pedroso, a veteran diplomat, is Havana’s special representative for the presidency and will likely play a key coordinating role at the summit.

During critical pre-summit meetings in Abu Dhabi that reached a tentative agreement on “loss and damage” funding for poorer countries, Pedroso put the success of the talks down to “the unity of the G77 despite the many attempts of developed countries to fracture the group.”

“Unity is our strength,” he said.

Russia made itself a pariah among Western countries with its invasion of Ukraine. But at COP, you’ve got to engage even with your worst enemies.

The most important figure in Moscow’s delegation is expected to be Edelgeriyev, Vladimir Putin’s climate adviser since 2018.

Fifth among the world’s biggest carbon polluters (behind China, the U.S., India and the E.U.) Russia is also one of the world’s great climate laggards, with an economy still highly dependent on producing and selling oil and natural gas.

But despite the conflict utterly dominating Russia’s political agenda, Moscow’s climate policy recently showed a flicker of life, with the publication of a new climate doctrine that locked in the country’s 2060 net zero goal.

Edelgeriyev is seen domestically as a key figure keeping some semblance of climate action inside the Russian government — but don’t expect Moscow’s delegation to be anything other than difficult over attempts to set more ambitious emissions-cutting goals.

Like his fellow septuagenarian Kerry, Xie is a diplomatic veteran approaching his swansong at COP28.

China’s long-standing climate envoy is standing down after the summit, according to reporting by Reuters — and his relationship with Kerry could prove pivotal to the summit’s success or failure.

Unlikeat past COPs,China can no longer be pigeonholed as a pantomime villain of the summit. The world’s worst coal addict and biggest producer of greenhouse gases is, paradoxically, also a powerhouse of green energy, home to half the world’s operating wind and solar capacity. It dominates global supply chains for solar and for electric car batteries. 

The world can have no good climate outcome without Beijing — and Xie knows it. China’s commitments, following the Xie-Kerry talks, to reduce emissions from its power sector this decade and to curb all greenhouse gases (not just carbon dioxide) is viewed as a good start by climate campaigners. But Xie’s clear past statement that a fossil fuel “phase-out” is “unrealistic” seems to have hurt the chances of that phrase making it into the final agreement.

Modern climate summits aren’t just negotiations between earnest (and not so earnest) government and U.N. officials. They’re trade fairs.

That’s a reflection of how the energy transition has become big business, a driving force of the global economy — not just a moral imperative.

But for Gates, still one of the world’s richest people, it’s both — and he’ll be at COP28 with two hats on.

One is the philanthropist urging governments to go further faster for the benefit of the world’s poorest people, who will be at the sharp end of the extreme weather, drought and flooding that climate change will drive.

The other is the investor, through his Breakthrough Energy Ventures initiative, which takes stakes in companies and technology that Gates and his advisers think are likely to make a big contribution to combating climate change — and make money.  

COP meetings attract not only the world’s leaders but also the world’s foremost climate campaigners.

Nakate’s friend Thunberg makes the most headlines, but the 27 year-old Ugandan activist is rising in prominence. Her voice will count at a summit where rich countries face pressure to make firm commitments to the “loss and damage” fund they promised last year to help poorer countries cope with climate change.

Nakate will also use her platform to push back on “distractions” to a fossil fuel phase-out, such as “allusions to carbon capture and storage technology,” a spokesperson said in an email. She has also called out Western companies’ rush to finance gas production in Africa — a fossil fuel glut she says will be “a terrible deal” for the continent.  

The world’s biggest oil exporter is coming to Dubai — just next door — determined to make the case that the problem is carbon pollution, not the fossil fuels that produce them.

Countries that think that sounds like doublethink will need to take it up with al-Mehaid.

Already this year, Saudi Arabia has pushed back against stronger action within the G20 on phasing out oil, gas and coal. Amin Nasser, head of the kingdom’s state oil company, Aramco, has criticized the idea that climate action should mean countries “either shut down or slow down big time” their fossil fuel production.

Instead, Al-Mehaid has talked up plans to invest in carbon capture and reduce the pollution that’s produced when drilling or mining fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia also wants to go from almost total dominance of oil and gas in its domestic energy mix to 50 percent renewables by 2030.

But few expect the Saudis — at the heart of the international oil market — to be anything other than a blocker in Dubai.

The European Union’s new climate action commissioner is heading to Dubai after just two months on the job. 

The tall Dutchman stepped into Frans Timmermans’ shoes in October with little to no experience in climate diplomacy, and has been on a steep learning curve ever since.  

A former Shell employee and conservative finance minister, Hoekstra faced hostility from green campaigners and left-wing politicians upon taking office. That largely dissipated once he committed to ambitious post-2030 climate targets and pushed for a tougher line against fossil fuels than EU governments eventually gave him a negotiating mandate for.

While he’s zigzagged the globe in recent weeks to visit key countries from Brazil to China, as the new kid at the COP, he lacks the experience and the personal connections Timmermans forged over the years. Dubai will be a chance to make his mark. 

The Spanish climate diplomat is representing the European Union in Dubai due to a quirk in the bloc’s legislative system: Madrid now holds the rotating presidency of the EU’s ministerial council, which gives Spain’s ecological transition minister equal billing alongside Hoekstra at COP28. 

During her tenure as ecological transition minister, Spain has accelerated its shift away from coal and successfully fought for a major change in the EU’s power market. 

Ribera spent much of this year campaigning for stronger efforts to protect nature at both the national and EU level.

A Spanish Socialist who has attended numerous climate summits, Ribera brings years of negotiating experience to the EU’s Dubai team — while serving as a foil to center-right COP newbie Hoekstra. 

One of the most connected people at any COP, Hampton chairs the influential European Climate Foundation, which funds climate campaign groups and think tanks across the EU and the U.K. 

The quintessential backroom operator, Hampton doesn’t do press, but her network spans Europe, India and China and she co-chaired an advisory group to the Africa Climate Summit held in September.  

In her day job, she’s CEO of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation NGO — but at the summit, she has a line into some of the key figures who can make or break a deal. 

Brazil’s president brought star power to last year’s climate talks in Egypt, promising to end deforestation and bring his country back into the climate fight. (Brazil has bid to host COP30 in 2025.) Since his return to lead the nation that is home to much of the Amazon, forest clearing has fallen to its lowest rate in years, preliminary analysis shows. 

Lula, as he’s broadly known, has sought closer trade ties with China at the same time that he’s earned a $500 million pledge from the U.S. for a fund to stop deforestation. He’s also highlighted the imbalance of a Western-oriented global order, and sought to showcase the idea that economic growth and emissions reductions aren’t in opposition to one another. 

The decisions Brazil makes matter deeply to the fate of the planet, not only because the collapse of the Amazon could release the huge amounts of carbon stored in those forests. The country is also boosting production from its major oil and gas reserves, raising questions about much Lula is willing to commit to an end to fossil fuels. 

In an international system where money is key to climate action, Egypt’s lead climate negotiator has been one of the foremost voices pushing rich countries to deliver on their promises. 

Nasr has led climate finance negotiations on behalf of African countries for more than a decade, pointing to the challenges many nations face securing funding that doesn’t drown them in debt. 

Last year he drew attention to contradictions in the way the U.S. and the European Union called for an end to fossil fuel finance for cash-strapped, energy-poor African nations at the same time they were seeking to invest in natural gas infrastructure. 

The Egyptian diplomat led last year’s COP27 negotiations in his home country, which ended with a historic agreement to establish a fund that would help countries rebuild after climate disasters. (Deciding who should run that fund, or getting countries like the U.S. to contribute any money to it, has been a much harder chore.) 

He then served on a committee tasked with designing the outlines of that fund, urging early in the process that it could not become “another empty shell.” Last month Nasr issued a provocative warning: Rich countries could face international litigation if they don’t pay up. 

The prime minister of Barbados came on the climate change scene at the United Nations General Assembly in 2018. It was there that the newly elected leader painted a wrenching picture of the trauma her country and other small islands faced from the increasing impacts of climate change: lives on the line, diminishing coastland, the constant cycle of economy-wrecking tropical storms.

It was her first such speech. It would be far from her last. 

In the years that followed, Mottley would work with trusted adviser Avinash Persaud to craft the Bridgetown Initiative, a plan to make more money available to countries that suffer the most but contribute the least to the climate crisis. 

She’s become a champion for debt-pause clauses that put a hold on repayments when disasters strike and has earned the backing of powerful figures, including French President Emmanuel Macron and new World Bank chief Ajay Banga.

Ever brazen in her delivery, Mottley has also called out rich-country hypocrisy and led a push to overhaul the global financial system to make it more just and equitable. “The world cannot be shaped by simply an old order,” she said earlier this year

Former Greenpeace chief Jennifer Morgan became Germany’s first-ever climate envoy last year, making Dubai the second COP she’s attending as part of a national delegation. In recent weeks, she’s been traveling across the South Pacific to strengthen ties with some of the most climate-vulnerable countries. 

Morgan doesn’t mince her words when it comes to the need for reducing emissions faster, but her sway within the German government is limited — and differences between the Green-led foreign ministry she’s part of and the rest of the coalition government risk undermining Berlin’s credibility at the summit. 

For example, Morgan told reporters on a trip to New Zealand that “there’s no room for new coal, oil or gas exploration.” But German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has signaled he’s willing to help countries like Senegal or Nigeria open new gas fields. 

The U.K.’s “green king” has been an environmental advocate most of his adult life. Now at the age of 75, he’s attending his first COP as monarch (he went to two others as prince of Wales).

He doesn’t hold any real power back home, but he’s been granted a prime slot on the schedule by his UAE hosts and will deliver the opening address at the world leader’s summit at the start of COP28.

He also has meetings booked with regional leaders and is hosting a business conference.

Climate advocates will be hoping that a touch of royal razzle-dazzle can influence the ministers of oil-rich Gulf monarchies in a way that mere politicians never could.

Climate might be a matter of faith for the monarch. But his prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has rowed back some of the U.K.’s interim net zero targets and is embracing North Sea oil and gas production. They’re the COP28 odd couple.

This article is part of the Road to COP special report, presented by SQM. The article is produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers.


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