A host of heads of state, ministers, representatives of NGOs, industrialists, lobbyists... More than 70,000 visitors are expected to attend COP28, which will be held from Thursday, November 30 to December 12 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

An unprecedented turnout for this new part of the major annual climate event, under the aegis of the UN. The event promises to be particularly scrutinized with, on the menu, two major battles around finance and fossil fuels.

Read alsoFossil fuels, loss and damage... What is at stake at COP28 in Dubai?

In the crowd, several personalities could be particularly talked about and weigh on the negotiations. Among them, the president of COP28, the Emirati Sultan Al-Jaber, and China's climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua. France 24 lists five protagonists to follow.

  • Sultan Al-Jaber, an oil Trojan horse at COP?

Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber at the opening of the Apidec, an oil and gas summit, in Dubai, in 2019. © AFP

The announcement of his appointment as COP28 president immediately caused controversy. The 50-year-old Emirati Minister of Industry Sultan Al-Jaber is no stranger to climate negotiations: the Emirates' special envoy for climate, he headed his country's delegation to COP26 in Glasgow and COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh. Founder in 2006 of Masdar, a company specialising in renewable energy, he is also often presented as the face of the development of these clean energies in the country.

But Sultan Al-Jaber is also the head of the national oil company Adnoc. A title that, for many environmentalists, makes it incompatible with the battle against climate change, with fossil fuels being the main culprits.

Read alsoCOP28: the United Arab Emirates caught up in its contradictions on climate

"People who accuse me of conflict of interest don't know my background. I have spent the majority of my career in sustainable development, project management and renewable energy," he told AFP in July.

Nevertheless, in recent months, this profile, which contrasts with that of his predecessors, has managed, if not to convince, at least to improve his image in the eyes of some of his detractors. "He's very direct, he listens," said Harjeet Singh, a COP veteran who speaks on behalf of the unavoidable Climate Action Network (a network of 1,900 organizations), who is well aware that he is complimenting an oil executive.

A first turning point came in Bonn, Germany, in June, when Sultan Al-Jaber openly described the reduction of fossil fuels as "inevitable". These are rarely seen as leaders at COPs, and few expected them from a Gulf official. Then, in July, he surprised again by detailing in a "letter to the parties" his ambitious position on fossil fuels, renewables, finance...

A few days before the COP, however, his position was undermined on Monday by revelations from the BBC. According to the British media, Sultan Al-Jaber has indeed taken advantage of his role as president of the COP to negotiate contracts in fossil fuels. These accusations were immediately denied by the Emirati. "This is exactly the kind of conflict of interest we feared when the chief executive of an oil company was appointed to this position," said Kaisa Kosonen, policy coordinator at Greenpeace International.

Beyond these concerns, it remains to be seen whether Sultan Al-Jaber will be able to manoeuvre to get an ambitious text adopted by the nearly 200 states participating in COP28. Dozens of countries have already announced that they will include an explicit call to reduce fossil fuels, something that no COP has ever succeeded.

  • Mia Mottley, the voice of the most vulnerable states

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley speaks during the opening ceremony of the Paris Peace Forum at the Palais Brongniart in Paris, Nov. 10, 2023. © Stéphane Lecocq, AFP

"If I pollute your property, you expect me to compensate you!" said Mia Mottley in November 2022 at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Prime Minister of Barbados, a small island state in the Caribbean threatened with extinction due to rising sea levels, Mia Mottley has over the years become the voice of the states of the Global South, the most vulnerable to global warming.

Already in 2021, she had made her mark by concluding a speech at the UN with a reference to Bob Marley and his title "Get Up Stand Up": "Who will stand up and stand firm for the rights of peoples, for those who have died in the Covid-19 pandemic, for those who are dying from the climate crisis, for small island states that need less than 1.5°C of warming to survive?" she said. He added: "If we can solve highly complex problems like sending people to the moon or male baldness, we need to be able to solve small problems like hunger and poverty."

But it was the following year, in Glasgow, at COP27, that she officially positioned herself as one of the influential figures in the climate negotiations. The 58-year-old lawyer played a major role in the creation of a fund on "loss and damage", the financial reparations demanded from rich countries – the main culprits of climate change – by poor countries – the main victims.

It was also behind the holding of a summit last June in Paris "for a new global financial pact". Its objective: to strive for greater climate justice by cancelling the debt of less developed countries, by setting up a guarantee fund funded by development banks and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), or by taxing the profits of fossil fuel companies.

What is striking is his eloquence and mastery of the subjects, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, former minister and now director of the NGO ONE, told the newspaper L'Express. "She captivates the audience, without any fuss, thanks to the solidity of her words and her innovative approach."

In 2022, Mia Mottley was also named one of the 100 most influential people of the year. "Mia Mottley is an icon of her country and reminds us all to treat our planet with dignity," the newspaper wrote. Her name is now rumored to become the next Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) at the end of Antonio Guterres' second term. The position becomes available in 2026.

"@miaamormottley is an embodiment of our conscience, reminding us all to treat our planet and therefore one another with love, dignity, and care," writes Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (@NOIweala) #TIME100 https://t.co/HuMRgPMnZr pic.twitter.com/DsNieGB1Qt

— TIME (@TIME) May 23, 2022

  • Xie Zhenhua, China's "Mr. Climate"

China's special envoy for climate Xie Zhenhua delivers a speech at the COP27 climate conference at the Sharm el-Sheikh International Convention Center on Nov. 8, 2022. © Ahmad Gharabli, AFP

Xie Zhenhua is China's "Mr. Climate", the world's largest emitter of CO2. He has been present at all COPs since 2007 and participated in the negotiations that led to the 2015 Paris Agreement. He is thus a key figure at these annual climate meetings.

In China, the 74-year-old with a round face and thin-rimmed glasses – an engineer by training – has been head of China's Environmental Protection Agency since 1993. But at the COPs, it is above all his diplomatic skills that are praised. Over the years, he has managed to forge a special relationship with his American counterpart John Kerry, despite the sometimes tense relations between China and the United States.

The agreement between the two men will be all the more important in Dubai as US President Joe Biden will be absent, it was announced on Monday. "We will have a robust delegation," including John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, presidential spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre and Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed.

"Xie Zhenhua is a role model for future climate diplomats. He is deeply committed to climate action and shows a willingness and ability to bridge the gap between China and the global community," Li Shuo, a former Greenpeace official who joined the Asia Society Policy Institute, told AFP.

  • Brazilian Minister Marina Silva, guardian of the Amazon rainforest

Brazil's Environment Minister Marina Silva speaks during a seminar on the Amazon in Belem, Para state, Brazil, Aug. 5, 2023. © Evaristo Sa, AFP

Brazil's Minister of the Environment, Marina Silva is an emblematic figure in the country's environmental struggle. After four devastating years for the Amazon under President Jair Bolsonaro, the 65-year-old has made it her mission to save the world's largest rainforest.

Just a few weeks after her appointment, she scored her first victory: Paris and the European Union were considering contributing to the Amazon Fund, a fund administered by Brazil and supported mainly by Norway.

Read alsoBrazil: Minister Marina Silva, guardian of the Amazon rainforest

During COP28, she and President Lula hope to go further. They are expected to propose the creation of a new fund to preserve tropical forests in some 80 countries. The initiative consists of "a payment mechanism per standing tree, per hectare, to help protect the tropical forests of the 80 countries" that have them on their territory, the minister said at a seminar on 24 November.

  • Ineza Umuhoza Grace, the voice of "eco-feminism"

Ineza Umuhoza Grace speaks at the Global Citizen NOW Summit at Glasshouse on April 28, 2023 in New York City. © Noam Galai AFP - NOAM GALAI

Apart from the formal negotiations, COP28 will also attract civil society voices that intend to influence the debates. Among them, the Rwandan "eco-feminist" activist Ineza Umuhoza Grace will carry the same battles as Mia Mottley.

The 27-year-old is the founder of the NGO The Green Protector in her home country and is the global coordinator of the Youth Coalition for Loss and Damage (LDYC). This movement, which brings together young people from the South and the North, advocates for the implementation of measures to combat loss and damage caused by climate change in vulnerable countries.

She herself remembers being a victim of it as a child, when her home in Rwanda was destroyed by extreme rains and winds. "At the time, I didn't know it was due to global warming," she says. She only learned it in high school, while watching a report on local television. "The journalist explained that a community living in a region of Rwanda had to move because of floods and made the link with global warming," she said. "It reminded me of the helplessness I had felt as a child when I saw my house destroyed."

For the young woman, it was the turning point. After high school, she decided to study environmental sciences in Rwanda and began to get involved in climate protection associations. "Everyone, everywhere, is exposed [to global warming]," she told the NGO Global Impact. "Everyone is vulnerable. But vulnerability also depends on the level of infrastructure already in place, the education system, funds and finances..."

Unsurprisingly, his message at COP28 is expected to focus on climate justice, according to those around him. The Youth Coalition will bring ten demands to COP28, including the operational establishment of the Loss and Damage Fund, the principle of which was decided at COP27.

With AFP

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