/ 17 March 2024

Déjà vu for the next UN climate change conference

Demonstration In Baku For International Women's Day
Freedom: A woman holds a placard that reads ‘Journalism is a crime in Azerbaijan’ on International Women’s Day. Journalists Sevinj Vagifgizi, Nargiz Absalamova and Elnara Gasimova were arrested in the Abzas Media case that investigated state corruption. Photo: Aziz Karimov/Getty Images

Another oilman is set to be at the helm of the United Nations climate change conference (COP). This year COP29 will take place in Baku, Azerbaijan, in November and its president is Mukhtar Babayev.

Babayev is Azerbaijan’s ecology and natural resources minister but has also spent 26 years working at Azerbaijan’s State Oil Company. 

It sounds like the same story we wrote last year, when Sultan al Jaber was announced as COP28 president despite his being group chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. 

There have been some arguments about who would host this year’s event. According to UN rules, an Eastern European country was meant to host COP29 and there was some contention over which country that would be. Eventually, it was settled as Azerbaijan. 

That is problematic for a few reasons. For detractors who believe COP events are captured by the fossil fuel lobby, this decision will not leave activists happy. Oil and gas made up about 92% of the country’s export revenue in 2023. That means the country is heavily reliant on fossil fuels as were the previous hosts, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

Back to Babayev. Despite his strong oil credentials, it must be noted that he does have relevant experience given that he is the ecology and natural resources minister. It has also been noted that he seems to be working hard to try to change people’s perceptions of their duty to the environment. 

And he seems to be saying the right things. In an opinion piece for The Guardian, he noted how he will attempt to build bridges between the North and South to ensure that there is trust when it comes to keeping climate change to an acceptable level. He didn’t say it but trust must be built between those traditionally responsible for the climate change mess and those who will be affected the most. 

Babayev believes it is a miracle that his country is hosting COP29, given the historical grievance with Armenia, which had also bid to host the event. But he said it spoke volumes about cooperation and he believed it showed that anything is possible, even limiting climate change to 1.5°C, which is the globally agreed limit. 

But Azerbaijan’s tenure as host is off to a rocky start. Aside from the issues with the president and it being a fossil fuel nation, there was major controversy around the organising committee. Of the original 28-person committee, not a single one was a woman

The country received backlash from all parts, and then changes were made. The country’s president added 12 women to the committee and an additional man. 

I suppose now would be the right time to bring up the swathes of literature that say women are bearing the brunt of climate change, so they need to be on a committee talking about the biggest crisis the world has had to deal with. 

Baku is also not known for its fondness of journalists. Azerbaijan is rated 151 out of 180 countries in the 2023 RSF Media Freedom Index

In 2022, analysis found that there were 215 attacks or threats against media, almost 76% of which were linked to government officials. Journalists covering COP29 will be mindful of this.

I do feel there is always a little space for optimism. Despite all the issues of COP28, the UAE hosting it, and the oilman president, it yielded some good results. Important things achieved, such as the pledges for a loss and damage fund, some steps toward the global goal for adaptation were taken and the first global stocktake was concluded. The global stocktake “enables countries and other stakeholders to see where they’re collectively making progress toward meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, and where they’re not”, according to the UN. 

Some believe that the simple mention of “transitioning away” from fossil fuels as an official COP outcome was an impressive feat. Others believe it should rather be “phasing out”, which would have given the negotiations more meat. 

I’m not filled with optimism about this year’s COP in November. Arguably it will be the most important because the 1.5°C temperature increase was breached for the year that ended in February. 

This should set alarm bells ringing for swift action. We shall see whether it will and whether Babayev is the right man to do so. He has outlined some of his country’s plans to lower emissions and scale up on renewable energy. It will be interesting to watch how this takes shape and whether he manages to successfully build the bridges of trust he has outlined.