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COP29's host is raising eyebrows. Here's why.

January 24, 2024
topic:Climate action
tags:#Azerbaijan, #net zero, #COP29, #climate change
by:Chermaine Lee
Can petrostates lead the world in the transition away from fossil fuels?

The all-male committee panel for this year's 29th summit of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Azerbaijan has included 12 women in response to international criticisms, which some perceive as a sign of the inexperienced climate leadership in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan’s success in bidding as the host of the upcoming conference came as a surprise to many at COP28 in Dubai, as Russia had been blocking many Eastern European countries from leading the event.

However, towards the end of the two-week meeting, the upper-middle income country secured the nomination after its war rivals, Armenia and Russia, agreed to it following a prisoner exchange between Azerbaijan and Armenia. 

Additional controversies, however, were quick to follow. 

Another Petrostate at the helm

The initial controversy bears a resemblance to that of the COP28 host, the United Arab Emirates, which relies on extracting and exporting oil for two-thirds of its income. Azerbaijan's economy is also heavily dependent on fossil fuels, primarily oil and gas.

The country is also a major oil exporter, with exports of the fossil fuel constituting half of its GDP. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline facilitates the transportation of half of its oil to the European Union. The conflict in Ukraine, which began two years ago, further heightened the demand for Azerbaijan's oil after Russia discontinued gas supply to the bloc.

Another major chunk of Azerbaijan’s export portfolio is natural gas, primarily from the world’s largest gas field, Shah Deniz, which is located within its territory. A Guardian report also revealed that the country has plans to further boost its gas production by a third over the next decade. 

This comes despite Azerbaijan's commitment to slash over a-third of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, and by 40 per cent by 2050. The country's renewable capacity, which is primarily concentrated in hydropower, also remains limited, and its share of energy consumption has shrunk since 2010.

Azerbaijan is expected to accelerate its installation operations in order to meet its 30 per cent renewable capacity goal by 2030. It now plans to further develop its solar, wind and hydropower capacity. 

At COP28, countries agreed for the first time in history to transition away from fossil fuels, namely to phase down unabated coal. Yet activists have expressed their concerns over a petrostate hosting the world’s largest climate conference. 

Furthermore, the transition to green energy will come at a significant economic cost, and Azerbaijan is in need of climate financing for adaptation.

The country of 10.4 million people is projected to suffer from temperature rise at a faster rate than the world average, potentially reaching 4.7 per cent warming by the 2090s. This is expected to slash agricultural yields, increase desertification and soil salinity and put increased pressure on its water supplies (the country is already vulnerable to droughts). 

Although agriculture only accounts for 7 per cent of Azerbaijan’s GDP, one-third of its population works in the sector. Farmers in the country produce wheat, barley, potatoes, maize cotton, grapes, vegetables, fruits, tobacco and tea. 

Compromise without dissent

Azerbaijan’s government appointed Makhtar Babayev as the COP29 president. The 56-year-old, who currently serves as the ecology and natural resources minister, had spent over two decades at the state oil and gas company Socar, which sparked an outcry over his deep ties with fossil fuels. 

This sparked concerns especially in light of allegations that the COP28 president and CEO of the state oil company, Sultan Al Jaber, exploited his position and engaged in secret fossil fuel deals with several countries as reported by the BBC.

Babayev’s connections with the oil and gas company extends to his appointment of committee: His committee group seats senior executives from power producer Azerenerji. Furthermore, Socar ranks only 91st among 99 companies and was said to have "no evidence of supporting just transition."

The company reportedly made no commitment to protect workers’ rights and as of now has no long-term plan to go green. 

Activists told the media that adding a dozen women to the committee constitutes "positive progress," but it falls short of achieving an ideal gender balance. Researchers also emphasise that the country has one of the worst gender gaps in the region, highlighting the importance of gender diversity in climate leadership.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s human rights record in 2023 remained strained. A report by Human Rights Watch stating that at least 30 people were wrongfully jailed as part of the authorities’ clamp down on dissidents and journalists.

Its military also forced tens of thousands of Armenians away from their homes in the conflict zone of Nagorn-Karabakh was also slammed. 

"Rewarding such behaviour by allowing the country to host COP29 sends the wrong message to the international community," Paul Polman, vice chair of the UN Global Impact, wrote in a commentary at Reuters. 

"As things stand, it is difficult to see how Baku will be either willing or able to unite the world around urgent climate action. How can you push others to higher ambition, while continuing to build your economy on fossil fuels? How can you convene the different players in a spirit of inclusion and compromise, while violently suppressing dissent?"

At COP29 this year, climate finance for mitigation and adaptation in the Global South will still take centre stage. Some remain optimistic that this would present an opportunity for the hydrocarbon-dependent nation to kick off a serious discussion about a just green transition. 

Image by Uladzislau Petrushkevich.

Article written by:
Chermaine Lee
Asia Desk Editor
Embed from Getty Images
Azerbaijan runs almost entirely on fossil fuels, namely oil and gas.
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The country is expected to speed up its installation to achieve its 30 per cent renewable capacity goal by 2030.
Embed from Getty Images
Azerbaijan’s government appointed Makhtar Babayev as the COP29 president. The 56-year-old spent over two decades at the state oil and gas company Socar.