The Power Players: Who is attending COP28 – and why?

For philanthropist and billionaire investor Bill Gates, COP28 is an opportunity to keep the annual climate change meeting focused on the poor
From presidents to monarchs, CEOs to billionaire investors, these influential leaders are participating in COP28. So what will they be championing?

Any big event is all about the guest list – and COP28 is no exception.

Arguably the most important event on the planet, the annual climate change conference is set to convene more than 70,000 people in Dubai, UAE, over the next two weeks (November 30 – December 12) in what could be potentially the largest UN climate summit ever.

Representatives of 197 countries who have signed or are ‘parties’ to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will participate primarily through debates and negotiations – and assess where the world stands when it comes to slowing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – and heads of state or prime ministers from 167 countries have RSVPed, including British PM Rishi Sunak, French President Emmanuel Macron, Prime Minister of Japan, Fumio Kishida, and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, President of Brazil.

From CEOs to presidents, billionaire investors to monarchs, celebrities to climate activists and advocates, spiritual leaders to indigenous leaders – who attends matters.

Not just because it underscores a country’s, or organisation’s commitment to the issue of climate change, and brings diverse international views and solutions to the negotiating table but because it raises the profile of climate change and brings clout – publicity and persuasion that could nudge leaders to take concrete action.   

Speculation over ‘who’s in’ and ‘who’s out’ at this year’s COP is (ironically) heating up, as some of the world's most influential global leaders decline (Biden), accept (Modi) and cancel (Pope Francis).

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The 'nos' and 'maybes' – COP28 attendance

Among those not attending, US President Joe Biden and Pope Francis are arguably the most high-profile.  

Despite the US and China being the world’s two biggest carbon emitters, Biden and Xi will not be at the summit, though both countries will send high-level representatives – including, US Vice-President Kamala Harris.

Pope Francis, the influential leader of 1.3 billion Catholics, had originally intended to attend but has now cancelled his trip to Dubai on doctors’ orders, as he is recovering from the flu, the Vatican said in a statement.

Having made protecting the environment a cornerstone of his decade-long reign, the 86-year-old had planned to become the first pontiff to attend the UN event and was expected to use the platform to urge countries and leaders to dramatically cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

Given the current conflict in the region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will also not attend the talks, a statement from Israel’s Foreign Ministry has said. Nor will Syrian President Bahar Assad or Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

While climate activist Greta Thunberg has not yet confirmed if she is attending – nor has she been spotted on the road, on a train, or at sea (she refuses to fly because of the carbon footprint) – the Swedish activist may well turn up. That said, she didn’t attend COP27 in Egypt and earlier this year, she called the appointment of Dr Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of oil giant ADNOC as COP28 President-Designate as “completely ridiculously”.

Climate activists attending COP28 will be able to protest and demonstrate for climate action in a hub called Voices for Action within the Green Zone at Expo City Dubai.

Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio is likely to be among the big Hollywood names in attendance, especially given that this COP has introduced new measures to enhance the effective participation of Indigenous Peoples and authentic visibility of Indigenous People-led solutions at COP28.

One of Hollywood’s leading advocates on the environment, DiCaprio recently starred in the Scorsese-directed film Killers of the Flower Moon, which highlights the disproportionate rates of violence toward indigenous women.

If previous COPs are anything to go by, DiCaprio may well be joined by celebrity peers including Idris Elba, Matt Damon, Stella McCartney and Ella Goulding. Actor and UN Goodwill Ambassador Idris Elba spoke at the World Government Summit, held in the UAE back in February.

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Then there are the 'probably' and 'definite' attendees.

From Britain’s King Charles III to India’s PM Narendra Modi, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink to billionaire investor and philanthropist Bill Gates, influential activist Ineza Umuhoza Grace to popular spiritual leader Sadhguru – this list features some of the most powerful global leaders and high-profile people that will be attending the upcoming conference – and have the opportunity to effect change. 

Why are these influential leaders attending the climate conference? And what are their plans for participation at COP28?

King Charles III

His Majesty King Charles III has confirmed he is attending COP28 at the UAE’s invitation, and upon the request of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government – and is expected to deliver an opening address and attend a reception to launch a business and philanthropy forum.

While constitutional norms prevent royalty from political debate (he cannot negotiate or support specific policies), he can of course turn up, support causes close to his heart, and offer ideas for progression.

An outspoken advocate of sustainable change, and recently profiled for his lifetime of achievement in Sustainability Magazine, King Charles has dedicated much of his life’s work to championing the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss – and his ideas and actions over the decades are credited with paving the way for the birth of COP.

In 1992, he hosted a conference aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia in the Amazon River delta, which led the way for the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which then became COP.

He has been a regular attendee of COPs over the years and at COP26 in Glasgow, he told leaders that “the cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of prevention”.

King Charles III will an deliver opening address at COP28 / Credit: Adam Schultz, The White House

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Given that India has the world’s largest population, accounting for one-sixth of global population) and an economy that is expected to be the world’s second-largest by 2075, the participation of India's PM Narendra Modi is significant. 

PM Modi has announced plans to visit the UAE for two days from November 30 to December 1, and for the second time will attend a COP, the Indian government said in a statement. “Climate change has been an important priority area of India’s G20 Presidency… COP28 will provide an opportunity to take forward these successes,” the statement read.

During COP26 in Glasgow, PM Modi announced five specific targets as India’s unprecedented contribution to climate action.

As well as holding bilateral meetings with some of the leaders participating in the summit, Modi is expected to share his vision on climate change with the world, the Indian Ambassador to UAE Sanjay Sudhir said in a recent interview.

Given that more than 70% of electricity consumed in India is produced using coal, Modi's participation is key – but it seems likely he will resist calls by more developed countries such as France and the US for a dramatic phasing out of fossil fuels.

Philanthropist and investor Bill Gates

The billionaire philanthropist has said he will attend COP28 and like King Charles – will be at the reception to launch a business and philanthropy forum.

The former Microsoft CEO and one of the world’s richest people is a leading investor in clean energy projects, and through his Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund, he takes stakes in companies and technology he thinks will make a big contribution to combating climate change.  

"I've funded US$2 billion in clean-energy technologies across every sector of the economy and plan to fund that much again in the next few years," Gates says in his personal blog, adding that he will give "any profits from these investments back to society through philanthropy". 

As well as pitching for the acceleration in clean energy at COP28, as a partner in The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he will no doubt be urging governments to do more and faster for the benefit of the world’s poorest.

"It's great that this COP includes a summit on food systems and a day specifically focused on health," he says. 

In a YouTube post (below), Gates outlined his reasons for attending COP28 and the message he plans to take to the conference

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President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

Having largely delivered on his promise to curb the destruction of the crucial Amazon rainforest, Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is heading to COP28 with an ambitious new plan.

Since he took office for a third time in January, the veteran left leader has halved deforestation in its giant share of the Amazon versus last year and has pledged to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2030. He is also set to announce a mega programme to recover degraded farmland in Brazil.

His recent successes give him substantial negotiating power and clout at the upcoming talks and according to Environment Minister Marina Silva, Lula plans to use it as leverage to push for a loss and damage fund.

Countries are currently deadlocked over how to design a fund to help countries recover and rebuild from climate change-driven damage – but Silva is planning to push nations to make good on promises to provide climate funding for the most at-risk countries.

He will propose the creation of a fund where wealthy nations pay tropical forest countries for every hectare of preserved forest land.

Brazil is among the nations vulnerable to climate risk, having experienced extreme weather including drought this year.

Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

Influential climate activist Ineza Umuhoza Grace

While she doesn’t grab the headlines like Greta, Ineza Umuhoza Grace is a committed and influential eco-feminist, climate activist and environmentalist – and one of the leading voices outside of the official negotiations seeking to influence events.

Earlier this year, the 27-year-old Rwandan picked up the Global Citizen Award for her activism work in climate justice.

She is the founder and CEO of The Green Protector, a women-led non-profit organisation dedicated to increasing active youth participation and Co-Director of the Loss and Damage Youth Coalition.

The coalition brings together more than 800 young people from over 80 countries in both the global south and north to advocate and take concrete action to address loss and damage – a theme that will likely take a lot of space at the upcoming conference.

As co-head of the coalition, Ineza will deliver 10 demands at COP28, including the implementation of the loss and damage fund that was promised a year ago, at COP27.

As she said in an interview earlier this year, “We are a generation that is able to generate change. We hold leaders accountable and we redesign our way of thinking.”

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Indian Yogi Sadhguru

One of India's most powerful gurus, spiritual leader and social activist Jagadish Vaudev (popularly known as Sadhguru) will join Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and other faith healers to lead the call for global action at COP28 at the first-ever faith Pavilion to be held at a climate conference.

The pavilion will convene more than 300 faith leaders and 70 leading faith-based organisations and house the Tree of Conscience, a tree collectively planted by 28 high-level faith leaders from over 19 faiths and denominations. 

An advocate of many social causes, from climate activism to rural school education, and a prolific speaker, who has received three presidential awards, the 87-year-old spiritual leader is founder of non-profit Isha Foundation, a non-profit spiritual centre that houses a yoga centre and claims over 300 offshoots around the world.

He also has a radio show and a popular YouTube channel, an Instagram following of 11.1 million, a New York Times bestselling self-help book (Inner Engineering) and a celebrity following, including Will Smith, Matthew McConaughey, Andrea Bocelli. He has also spoken at Google, Microsoft India, Oxford University, the World Bank and World Economic Forum. 

Among his latest environmental crusades, he has been turning the world's attention to improving soil health with the Save Soil movement, which addresses land degradation and advocates for healthy soil.

Sadhguru will be among the high-profile speakers at the COP28 faith pavilion, a space for dialogues and sessions promoting climate justice collaboration among religious and indigenous representatives, scientists, young people, and political leaders.

He will also attend a series of crucial panel discussions and fireside chats alongside leading experts. 

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BlackRock CEO Larry Fink (and other corporate finance leaders)

With the prestigious Fortune Global Forum and Abu Dhabi Finance Week all taking place in the UAE in the days leading up to COP28 – leading business executives from all over the world are in the UAE and will likely attend COP28 too. 

Among these, a number of finance heavyweights including Larry Fink, CEO BlackRock, Laura Cha, Chairman of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing; CS Venkatakrishnan, CEO of Barclays, Bill Winters of Standard Chartered Plc. Citigroup is also planning to send a delegation. 

Attendance by Wall Street and big-name bankers and investors is essential given that climate finance will take centre stage at the conference.

Arguably the most powerful man in finance, Larry Fink wasn’t among attendees at COP27 in Egypt, but is on the COP28 advisory committee. 

As chief executive of the world's largest asset manager, Fink is at the forefront of the business world's adoption of ESG standards with his strong stance on sustainability and annual letters to investors that address ESG issues, which have increasingly become political statements. He no longer uses the word ESG as it has been weaponised by politicians but continues to talk to companies it has stakes in about decarbonisation, corporate governance and social isues to be addressed. 

The company has projected that by 2030, at least three quaters of its investments will be with issuers of securities that have scientific targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions on a net basis.

In his latest annual chairman letter, he said: "Climate change is the single biggest long-term threat to financial markets, with impacts already felt across the economy."

He will no doubt join in discussions on the clean energy push and future of sustainable investing.

As well as Fink, Barclays CEO CS Venkatakrishnan is expected to attend with a team and host client events on increasing the flow of money to climate technologies and developing carbon-saving projects.

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COP28 Power Players – ones to watch

Along with the above high-profile names, the following powerful climate action players will be in attendance – and will be lobbying for action on a list of causes. Here are the ones to watch:

  • John Kerry, US Climate Envoy Eight years ago, then-Secretary Kerry helped U.S. President Barack Obama secure the landmark Paris Agreement. He will likely meet with his Chinese opposite number, Xie Zhenhua, who he recently secured agreements with.

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus As the World Health Organisation Chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus will be making the trip, as he looks to lobby for health considerations to be embedded in climate policy. 

  • Vanessa Nakate The 25-year-old climate activist from Uganda and founder of the Africa-based Rise Up Movement, will be attending various side events, including a discussion on climate-induced migration from the world’s most vulnerable nations.

  • Khalid al-Mehaid As chief negotiator for the world’s biggest oil exporter (Saudi Arabia), Khalid al-Mehaid will be faced with pressure at COP28 to support the accelerated phase-down of fossil fuels. Last month, during MENA Climate Week 2023 in Riyadh, Al-Mehadi said a one-size-fits-all approach will not work in the MENA region and the “the kind of energy transition narrative is not taking into account the priorities of the MENA region, let alone the Global South.”

  • Wopke Hoekstra Just months into the job as the EU’s new climate action commissioner, Dutchman Wopke Hoeksta is heading to Dubai. Hoekstra has committed to ambitious post-2030 climate targets and during the conference is likely to push for tripling renewable capacity and phasing out CO2-emitting fossil fuels.

  • Francesco La Camera, Director General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) Francesco will be calling on countries to triple the deployment of renewable power generation by 2030 and double energy efficiency. 

  • Adil Najam, President, WWF International Dean Emeritus and Professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and now President at WWF, Najam's research is largely focused on international environmental negotiations, especially climate negotiations. He was recently quoted a saying: "If loss and damage is not resolved or becomes even more contentious, it has the real possibility of taking everything else down.”

  • Madeleine Diouf Sarr, Head of the Climate Change Division in Senegal’s government Sarr has 20 years of experience in UN climate change negotiations. Chair of the Least Developed Countries Group, the first woman to lead the group, Sarr is a voice for the world’s least developed countries (the 46-member negotiating bloc). Home to over 4% of the world’s population but using only 1% of emissions, Sarr will be lobbying for targets and funding on loss and damage.

  • Rafael Grossi The head of the Atomic Energy Agency will be pushing for nuclear power to have a crucial role in the energy transition.

  • Mohamed Nasr, Ambassador, Ministry of Foreign Affairs The Egypt diplomat is Egypt’s lead climate negotiator, and last year led COP27 negotiations in his country. He has led climate finance negotiations on behalf of African countries for over 10 years and is insistent on pushing western countries to fulfil promises made in reparations to the global south. 


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