World leaders, scientists and activists gather in Dubai this week for the latest UN-sponsored COP summit aimed at forging a global response to the climate emergency. From the controversial Emirati host Sultan al-Jaber to climate leader and Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados, FRANCE 24 takes a look at some of the likely protagonists of the high-stakes gathering.  

The COP28 climate summit kicks off in the desert metropolis on Thursday, November 30, drawing representatives of almost 200 countries as well as a host of climate experts, activists and lobbyists. Some 70,000 delegates are expected to attend the 13-day gathering, which will be the largest – and, arguably, most controversial – COP to date.  

The high-stakes summit in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates will be closely scrutinised, with tough negotiations on fossil fuels and climate financing on the agenda. A number of high-profile figures will be in the spotlight, none more so than the event’s Emirati president and host, Sultan al-Jaber.   

 

Sultan Al-Jaber, a Trojan horse at the helm?  
News that COP28 would be headed by the host country’s oil supremo immediately sparked a firestorm of criticism. At 50, the Emirati industry minister is an habitué of climate negotiations, having already led his country’s delegations at COP26 in Glasgow and the following gathering in Sharm el-Sheikh. The founder of renewable energies firm Masdar, he likes to tout his credentials as the face of clean energy in the UAE.  

But al-Jaber is also the chief executive of Adnoc, the country’s state oil company – a title many climate activists say disqualifies him from chairing a summit aimed at combating the global warming caused in large part by fossil fuels.   

The COP28 president bristles at accusations that he has a conflict of interest. “I’m someone who spent the majority of his career in sustainability, in sustainable economic development and project management, and renewable energy,” he told AFP in July.  

He has managed to soothe a number of sceptics in the build-up to the summit, including Harjeet Singh of the influential coalition Climate Action Network International, which brings together some 1,900 NGOs.  

“He’s very straightforward, he’s open to listening,” Singh told AFP this week, though cautioning that the pair “agree to disagree” on several issues.  


A first turning point came at a June conference in Bonn, Germany, when al-Jaber described the reduction of fossil fuels as “inevitable” – an unprecedented step for a Gulf official. The next month, the Adnoc CEO reiterated in a letter to COP28 parties that “phasing down demand for, and supply of, all fossil fuels is inevitable and essential”, setting out ambitious targets for renewable energies and climate financing.  

Just days before the summit’s opening, however, al-Jaber’s position was weakened by a BBC report revealing that the UAE planned to use its role as the host of UN climate talks as an opportunity to strike oil and gas deals – allegations he promptly denied.  

“This is exactly the kind of conflict of interest we feared when the CEO of an oil company was appointed to the role,” Greenpeace’s climate policy head Kaisa Kosonen wrote in a post on the social media network X.  

It remains to be seen whether al-Jaber will be able to influence/guide/lead the nearly 200 states taking part in the summit to broker an agreement on an ambitious text. Dozens of countries have already announced their intention to include an explicit call to reduce fossil fuels, something no COP has ever achieved.  

 

Mia Mottley, standing up for the most vulnerable  
Mia Mottley’s bold oratory and climate advocacy have catapulted the charismatic leader of tiny Barbados to the forefront of the battle against climate change, making her a champion of the ‘Global South’ nations most vulnerable to the effects of rising seas and global warming.  

A lawyer by training, the Caribbean island’s prime minister shot to prominence in 2021 with an impassioned speech to the UN General Assembly, in which she cited the Bob Marley hit “Get Up, Stand Up” to spur concrete action on climate change.  

“In the words of Robert Nesta Marley … who will get up and stand up for the rights of our people?” she asked.

“Who will stand up in the name of all those who have died because of the climate crisis or will stand up for the small island developing states who need [to keep global warming below] 1.5° Celsius to survive?”  


Her role at COP27 in Glasgow the following year cemented her standing as a world leader on climate change. She notably spearheaded successful efforts to establish a Loss and Damage Fund, designed to provide financial assistance to nations most vulnerable and impacted by the effects of climate change.

Mottley, 58, also played a key part in a summit held in Paris last June for a new global financial pact. The gathering hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron aimed to achieve greater climate justice by writing off the debt of less-developed countries, setting up a guarantee fund backed by development banks and the International Monetary Fund and taxing the profits of fossil fuel companies.  

Her inspirational advocacy earned her a place on TIME magazine’s list of The 100 Most Influential People of 2022. Writing in the magazine, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director-general of the World Trade Organization, said Mia Mottley “is an embodiment of our conscience, reminding us all to treat our planet and therefore one another with love, dignity, and care”.


Such is Mottley’s rising fame and prestige that her name has reportedly been floated among possible candidates to head the United Nations after Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, whose mandate will come to an end in 2026.  

 

Xie Zhenhua, China’s veteran climate negotiator  
Known as China’s “Mr Climate”, Xie Zhenhua has represented the world’s top CO2 emitter at every COP since 2007, making him a centrepiece of all recent climate negotiations. He was notably involved in hammering out the landmark Paris climate agreement in 2015.  

An engineer by training, the 74-year-old official has been at the head of the State Environmental Protection Administration since 1993 and is known for his diplomatic skills. In recent years, he has succeeded in forging a close relationship with his American counterpart John Kerry, the US climate envoy, despite the wider context of tense relations between the two superpowers.  

The personal rapport between Xie and Kerry will be all the more important in the absence of the two countries’ presidents, the White House having confirmed on Monday that President Joe Biden will not attend COP28.  

“Xie Zhenhua is a model for future climate diplomats,” former Greenpeace activist Li Shuo, now a researcher at the Asia Society Policy Institute, told AFP. “He is deeply committed to climate action and shows a willingness and ability to bridge the gap between China and the global community.”  

 

Brazil’s Marina Silva, guardian of the Amazon  
A former presidential candidate, Brazil’s Environment Minister Marina Silva is an emblematic figure of the fight against deforestation in the Amazon. After four years of unprecedented destruction of the world’s largest rainforest under former president Jair Bolsonaro, she has made it her mission to save the so-called “lungs of the planet”.  

Silva served as environment minister during President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s first term in office, between 2003 and 2008. She was reappointed to the job in January, following Lula’s defeat of his right-wing predecessor Jair Bolsonaro. Since then, she has secured a European Union commitment to invest €260 million in an Amazon Fund that Bolsonaro’s government had suspended.   

She is expected to push further at COP28, accompanied by Lula, with a proposal to set up a new fund to preserve tropical rainforests in some 80 countries. Speaking at a seminar in the run-up to the summit, Silva said the initiative would involve “a mechanism of payment per standing tree and per hectare of land” to help countries preserve their forests.  

 

Inez Umuhoza Grace, the voice of ecofeminism
Aside from the official country delegations, COP28 will draw a host of civil-society activists determined to weigh on the discussions. They include Ineza Umuhoza Grace, founder of Rwandan NGO The Green Protector, a women-led non-profit that aims to foster environmental awareness among youths. 

Umuhoza Grace, 27, is global coordinator for the Loss and Damage Youth Coalition, which brings together young people from the global South and North to demand action on helping countries most vulnerable to climate change.   

In an interview with the NGO Global Impact, Umuhoza Grace recalled how she first experienced the effects of the climate crisis at an early age when her family home in Rwanda was destroyed due to intensive rainfall and wind. It was only years later that she was able to link this formative experience to the changing climate. 

“I was watching the news one evening and then I saw on the television a particular area in my country where the community was being forced to move because of flooding and erosion,” she said. “On the television you could see that most of the people who were being displaced were women and children. And that reminded me of the powerless feeling that I had back then.”  

Umuhoza Grace studied environmental engineering at the University of Rwanda and describes herself as an “ecofeminist”. Her work focuses on advocacy and training, both petitioning global leaders at international events and sharing the science of climate change at the grassroots level.

“Everyone, everywhere is exposed (to the climate crisis),” she told Global Impact. “Everyone is vulnerable, but the level of vulnerability depends on the level of infrastructure already in place, the educational system, the funds and finance.” 

Her youth coalition plans to present 10 demands at COP28, including the full implementation of the Loss and Damage Fund that Barbados PM Mia Mottley successful pushed for at the COP27 gathering last year. 

This article has been translated from the the original in French.