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Nov 29, 2023, 10:20am EST
net zero

Who to watch at COP28

REUTERS/Rula Rouhana
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The News

U.S. President Joe Biden won’t be attending the COP28 climate summit, which starts on Thursday in Dubai, but plenty of other leaders will be: With an estimated 70,000 attendees this COP will be twice as large as any previous climate summit. Over the next two weeks, they’ll be working to set new targets for solar and wind energy capacity, cut methane emissions, devise rules for a global carbon-trading market, and finally establish a climate reparations fund, among other things. There will likely be some genuine progress — and plenty of hot air.

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Tim’s view

COP — Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change — used to be an obscure, highly technical conference attended by a handful of scientists and diplomats. In the years since the 2015 Paris Agreement, it’s become more of a sprawling trade show.

Ultimately, there will be one document, unanimously accepted by all countries, that spells out the state of global climate action and the next steps countries commit to take. And to that end, a few voices matter more than others. These are the ones I’ll be following most closely.

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The A-listers

  • Is it possible for fossil fuel companies to credibly take part in the long-term demolition of their own industry? Al-Jaber seems to think so, and may be one of the best-positioned people to convince oil execs to sign on deeper emissions cuts and greater investment in renewables, carbon capture, and other climate tech. But as an investigation Monday by the Centre for Climate Reporting made clear, he is still an oil man at heart, and plans to use the summit to advance oil and gas production.

John Kerry: U.S. climate envoy

  • This will be the final COP for the longtime diplomat who was among the architects of the Paris Agreement. As the world’s top historic emitter by far — and with U.S. oil and gas production at all-time highs — the U.S. has the finest line to walk between encouraging other countries to decarbonize without committing itself to help them pay for it, or supporting a complete fossil fuel phase-out. Kerry has been supportive of al-Jaber’s presidency, embracing the notion of fossil-fuel companies as important contributors to the transition. And he has a deep relationship with his Chinese counterpart.

Xie Zhenhua: Chinese climate envoy

  • This is likewise the last COP for Kerry’s longtime Chinese collaborator. Like the U.S., China is keen to avoid responsibility for climate-finance payments, and one priority for Xie is to keep China rhetorically aligned with developing countries as more a victim of climate change than a historic contributor to it. And like the U.S., China is usually a scapegoat at COP — it has the world’s largest carbon footprint today, and Xie has called a fossil-fuel phaseout “unrealistic.” But China has committed to peak emissions from its power sector this decade, curb non-CO2 greenhouse gases, and is the only country whose renewable energy capacity is growing fast enough to triple by 2030.
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The horse traders

  • A powerful champion of reforming the global financial system, her “Bridgetown Agenda” proposal to overhaul the World Bank and IMF are now the foundation of the climate finance debate, and gained an important ally this year in French President Emmanuel Macron. Her speech on Saturday will be one to watch.

Jennifer Morgan: German climate envoy

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  • Morgan is among the most experienced players at COP, having attended all 27 of them so far. She’s a longtime activist, first with the World Resources Institute, later as the executive director of Greenpeace, and now with the German government, trading in her public firebrand persona for a more private but no less effective one. She’ll be key to ensuring the climate reparations fund is actually set up — a key criteria for success at this COP.

Wopke Hoekstra: European Commission commissioner for climate action

  • This will be the first COP for Hoekstra as the EU’s climate chief. He’s a former Dutch finance and foreign minister, and, at the beginning of his career, an employee of Shell, who for now is a bit of an unknown element in climate politics. But he plans to back a full fossil-fuel phaseout at COP28, putting him at odds with the U.S., and wants to expand the base of major climate-finance donors beyond Europe to include China and Gulf petrostates.

Marina Silva: Brazilian environment and climate change minister

  • Silva was born on a rubber plantation in the Amazon, and progressed to a career as a prominent labor organizer, environmentalist, and politician crusading against deforestation. Silva’s main job at COP28 will be to push other forested countries to try harder to achieve a 2021 commitment to end deforestation by 2030, a goal that is currently far off track.

Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta: permanent representative of Cuba to the United Nations and chair of the G77 bloc

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  • Cuesta has one of the hardest jobs at COP28, trying to wrangle a negotiating bloc that includes major industrial emitters like China and India as well as low-income, highly vulnerable countries like his home nation Cuba. If the bloc, COP’s biggest, can stick together, it can be powerful, although Cuesta failed during an earlier set of talks to land one of the bloc’s priorities: keeping the climate-reparations fund outside the jurisdiction of the World Bank.

Fatumanava-o-Upolu III Dr. Pa’olelei Luteru: permanent representative of Samoa to the United Nations and chair of the Alliance of Small Island States

  • Luteru’s group essentially represents the world’s most vulnerable countries, those for whom climate change is truly an existential threat. AOSIS is typically the bloc most closely aligned with climate activists; in a statement this week, Luteru said he plans to push for ending fossil-fuel subsidies.
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The green backers

  • Carney was responsible for bringing banks, insurers, and asset managers into the climate conversation at COP26, with the launch of GFANZ, a coalition of institutions with $130 trillion in assets all committed to decarbonize their portfolios. But two years on, the group is disintegrating, with several high-profile members dropping out, and others threatening to go next, concerned about anti-ESG backlash from their clients and the risk of antitrust penalties if they coordinate too closely.

Bill Gates: philanthropist and founder of Breakthrough Energy

  • In his role at the helm of the Gates Foundation, Gates has pushed governments and nonprofits to step up efforts on climate adaptation. He is now also a de facto leader of the climate tech scene, as founder of his venture fund Breakthrough Energy.

Rachel Kyte: dean emerita of The Fletcher School at Tufts University and co-chair of the Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative steering committee

  • Another longtime COP veteran, Kyte is these days an influential leader in the effort to strip greenwashing out of the global carbon market. Her passion and pragmatism have earned her trust on both sides of this contentious issue — activists who see carbon trading as a dangerous con, and political leaders who see it as a channel for climate finance to reach developing countries.

Ajay Banga: World Bank president

  • COP28 will be a test for the new World Bank chief on whether the institution can really evolve with the times. Banga has been receptive to Mottley’s Bridgetown ideas, and is far more attuned to the bank’s role in funding clean energy in developing countries than his predecessor David Malpass, who came under fire at COP27 after he appeared to question climate science.
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The hellraisers

  • Adow, who comes from a family of nomadic pastoralists in northern Kenya, is among the most vocal and relentless advocates for the Global South and climate finance payments. His new Nairobi-based NGO is building a network of African climate groups and working to call out greenwashing.

Vanessa Nakate: youth activist

  • The 27-year-old Ugandan activist is a rising star alongside her friend Greta Thunberg. She’s excoriated al-Jaber for what she sees as a reliance on carbon capture that’s “unrealistic and incompatible with the Paris Agreement,” and is the author of a 2021 book about how to raise the international profile of activists from the Global South. Opportunities for protest marches will be scarce in restrictive Dubai, but a rally is planned for Dec. 9 inside the summit venue.

Harjeet Singh: head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International

  • In addition to being one of the best-dressed COP attendees, Singh has also been deeply involved in the climate reparations debate. CAN International, which represents nearly 2,000 global climate activist groups, sets the benchmark for what the most ambitious outcome of COP28 could be; the group published its specific list of demands – notably “an immediate end of fossil fuel expansion” — in a report on Tuesday.
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The press whisperers

  • Another veteran of every COP and adviser to many COP presidencies, Meyer is a go-to source for journalists trying to understand what’s going on behind the scenes. Whatever you read in the next two weeks about the COP28 negotiations, there’s a good chance a sideline chat with Meyer informed it.

Climate Nexus: communications organization funded by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

  • It’s just about impossible to keep up with the deluge of events, announcements, and press conferences at each COP, but Climate Nexus manages to keep a handle on the play-by-play — as well as insider tips like where to find the best coffee (usually Australia’s pavilion).

Simon Evans: deputy editor of Carbon Brief

  • Carbon Brief does many things well, but during COP one of its most useful features is a running analysis of the byzantine negotiating documents that get updated as the summit progresses. The smallest details are often the most important, and Evans’ Twitter feed is usually the best place to track them.
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