Baku, Azerbaijan – In a controversial move, Azerbaijan has appointed former oil industry veteran Mukhtar Babayev to serve as president of the United Nations’ COP29 climate change conference in 2024. As the ecology minister who oversees Azerbaijan’s environmental policy, Babayev’s background with the state oil company SOCAR has alarmed climate activists who question his commitment to tackling global carbon emissions.
The appointment comes on the heels of last year’s COP28 talks in Dubai, which were spearheaded by United Arab Emirates climate envoy Sultan al-Jaber – also the CEO of oil giant ADNOC. Environmental groups had protested his selection over perceived conflicts of interest. Now a similar outcry is mounting over Azerbaijan’s pick to oversee the next round of pivotal UN negotiations on the climate emergency.
Azerbaijan, a country on the Caspian Sea rich in oil and natural gas reserves, has sought to portray itself as a leader on environmental protection even while its economy remains highly dependent on fossil fuel exports.
As a veteran of SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state oil company, Babayev spent decades in management roles helping to expand the country’s production and pipeline capabilities before being named ecology minister last year. His appointment to lead the Baku climate summit raises questions about Azerbaijan’s commitment to steer away from oil and gas and reduce its emissions, whichclimate scientists say is necessary to prevent catastrophic global temperature rise.
| Azerbaijan: Key Facts |
| Capital | Baku |
| Population | 10.2 million |
| Land Area | 33,436 square miles |
| 2022 GDP | $48.2 billion |
| Key Exports | Oil, natural gas, petroleum products |
Azerbaijan has pitched itself as a renewable energy leader, citing goals to generate 30% of its domestic power from green sources by 2030 even while pumping over 800,000 barrels of oil per day. Hosting COP29 is viewed as an opportunity to bolster Azerbaijan’s climate credentials. However, the choice of Babayev has raised doubts about whether commercial interests will take precedence over emission cuts.
Criticism Mounts Over Babayev
News of Babayev’s appointment as president of COP29, slated to take place November 12-24 in Baku, has been met by vocal criticism by climate scientists and activists. They contend that his deep oil industry ties could undermine global climate progress at a pivotal moment when bolder action is urgently needed to curb carbon emissions and meet targets set under the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Dr. Ginny Brown, a sustainability lecturer at Oxford University, called it “deeply concerning” to have someone so entrenched in the oil business leading climate negotiations. She contrasted the pick with the selection of the more neutral diplomat Jan Cedergren to helm last year’s COP28 summit in the United Arab Emirates.
“You have to wonder whether commercial interests will trump climate imperatives under Babayev’s leadership,” Brown said. “This could inhibit much-needed ambition on emissions.”
Other leading voices for climate action echoed worries that big oil would cast too large a shadow over the Baku talks. Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, urged Babayev to “take bold steps away from his fossil fuel past.” Making progress requires leaders with “uncompromising focus” on emissions cuts, she said.
Even moderate green groups like the Environmental Defense Fund that have engaged major oil companies see the appointment as risky.
“While we believe the energy industry has an important role in the clean energy transition, it is questionable whether someone so embedded in the carbon economy can objectively oversee global climate negotiations,” said company vice president Nat Keohane.
Azerbaijan and Oil
As the next host of pivotal UN climate talks in 2024, Azerbaijan will be under pressure to show leadership in cutting its own emissions from heavily oil-reliant sectors.
The Caspian Sea country has significant reserves – largely untapped offshore oil and gas deposits that are estimated to be worth over $1 trillion. Its abundant fossil fuel resources have underpinned Azerbaijan’s economy since the late 19th century. With output peaking at over 1 million barrels daily in 2010, the nation derives the vast majority of export earnings and nearly half its GDP from hydrocarbons.
Even as Azerbaijan aims to grow renewable power domestically from mainly hydroelectric and wind sources, oil exports look set to continue dominating for years to come. Its state oil company SOCAR channels huge revenues into public spending on infrastructure and services. SOCAR also exerts major lobbying influence on environmental policies.
| Azerbaijan: Climate & Energy Profile|
| 2022 Oil Production | 805,000 barrels/day |
| Proven Oil Reserves | 7 billion barrels |
| Key Export Partners | Italy, Israel, Turkey |
| Renewables Share of Power Mix | 17% |
| Largest Oil Company | SOCAR (state-owned) |
This heavy dependence leaves the country with conflicting priorities between economic goals reliant on fossil fuel income and climate pressures to shift towards cleaner energy systems, analysts say.
“It’s reasonable to doubt whether the political will exists for Azerbaijan to phase out its massive oil and gas operations given how central they are to its economy,” said energy policy researcher Adedoyin Adebayo of the University of Oxford.
As a long-time SOCAR executive before becoming ecology minister, Babayev helped expand Azerbaijan’s oil and gas infrastructure, negotiatiated key energy deals and managed regional pipeline projects – background that critics claim undercut his credibility to lead global climate action.
After graduating university in 1981 with an engineering degree, Babayev spent over 25 years climbing SOCAR’s corporate ladder in technical and operational roles. From 2007-2018, he served as deputy head and then head of the oil company’s production division overseeing drilling and extraction countrywide. In 2018, President Ilham Aliyev appointed him as SOCAR’s deputy vice president.
Babayev maintained deep ties with SOCAR even after being named ecology minister in 2022. In that capacity he has continued voicing full-throated support for realizing Azerbaijan’s fossil fuel potential, stating last year: “Oil and gas development processes should be continued progressively.”
While Babayev has signed agreements and enacted minor policies supporting sustainability initiatives, critics say he has shown little appetite for measures that would substantially curb emissions from the country’s hydrocarbon activities which account for over 80% of Azerbaijan’s total carbon output.
Road to COP29
In the 11 months leading up to November’s climate summit that Babayev will preside over, he and the Aliyev adminstration face challenging tasks to convince the world of their climate seriousness.
As COP29 president, Babayev must establish his neutrality and willingness to pursue an agenda aligned with – not watered down from – the landmark pledges made at last year’s conference to accelerate emissions cuts and phase down fossil energy worldwide. Given Azerbaijian’s heavy economic reliance on oil and gas, he also needs to map out a forward-looking transition plan consistent with the Paris Agreement’s objectives.
To that end, Babayev has opportunities through policy signals and formal submissions to U.N. climate overseers in the coming months to demonstrate genuine intent on raising national ambition and shifting Azerbaijan away from hydrocarbons. He can also use his convening power at COP29 itself to set a progressive tone advancing the consensus built in previous climate talks.
Ultimately Azerbaijan’s goal of positioning itself as an environmental leader rings hollow if the country under Babayev’s oversight fails to match rhetoric with results, experts emphasize.
“We’ll be looking for signs that Babayev is truly embracing decarbonization – not just greenwashing,” said International Energy Agency executive Fatih Birol.
With COP29 fast approaching, the onus lies on its president to prove skeptics wrong. How forcefully Babayev pushes forward the U.N. climate agenda as a former oil man could determine whether the Baku summit accelerates action – or bogs it down.
The Road Ahead
Climate advocates vow to exert pressure on Babayev in hopes that commercial appeasement does not take precedence over emission cuts in the high-level negotiations he will lead. Groups ranging from Greenpeace to PowerShift Network plan demonstrations at November’s event to demand bolder action phasing out fossil fuels globally.
Some diplomats hold out optimism that concerted civil society mobilization can spur Babayev to drive an ambitious agenda advancing Paris Accords goals. “With enough scrutiny we hope positive momentum carrying over from last year can check any efforts to excessively cater to oil interests,” said U.N. climate advisor Selwin Hart.
Other observers remain wary that Azerbaijan’s economic dependence on hydrocarbons will overcome hopes for progress. Columbia University professor Todd Stern, President Obama’s chief climate negotiator, argues meaningful emissions curbs are unlikely without reducing reliance on oil and gas income. “You can’t plausibly transition to clean energy as a country when your entire economy runs on selling fossil fuels,” he said.
As Babayev takes up the COP29 presidency, his background has stoked doubts while his actions going forward will determine whether optimism or skepticism proves warranted. After divisive leadership choices for climate diplomats over consecutive years from major petrostates, the need for demonstrating unambiguous resolve cutting emissions has never been more crucial.
With the quickening impacts of climate change already incurring trillions in costs worldwide, the stakes could not be higher for Azerbaijan’s ex-oil chief to use the 2024 climate summit to accelerate global decarbonization efforts rather than advance narrow national interests. The coming year will reveal which pathway Babayev intends for talks potentially shaping humanity’s future.
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