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Baku gets planning for Cop29 – with a little help from the UAE

Azerbaijan to underline the role of petrostates in climate change policy

Baku's Flame Towers are a reference to Azerbaijan being 'The Land of Fire' and rich in natural gas. Reuters
Baku's Flame Towers are a reference to Azerbaijan being 'The Land of Fire' and rich in natural gas.

The UAE involvement in the campaign against climate change did not end with the historic deal of last December in Dubai that called, for the first time, for a reduction in fossil fuel usage.

Dr Sultan Al Jaber, who steered the “UAE consensus” through a sometimes fractious conference, remains president of the UN Conference of the Parties until the opening of Cop29 in Baku, Azerbaijan, in November.

Already cooperation between the two countries in preparation for that handover is well advanced.

Azerbaijan seems to be learning from the UAE playbook.

The Cop29 president designate is Mukhtar Balayev, whose career in Socar (the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic), followed by a stint as environment minister, resembles that of Al Jaber.

Baku also appointed a 24-member organising committee that initially had no female members. Perhaps mindful of the prominent role played by women at the Dubai Cop, that was quickly rectified by the addition of 12 women from public policy circles.

Azeri women, as my wife will confirm, are strong-willed individuals who will be sure to leave their mark on the proceedings.

The Baku strategy is still in the early stages of formulation, but people close to the thinking in Abu Dhabi and Baku believe Azerbaijan will look to capitalise on some clear advantages it has in the global climate change debate.

For one, it is an unashamed petrostate, even more so than the UAE. It is proud of its hydrocarbon heritage: oil and gas today account for nearly half of GDP, and 90 per cent of export revenues.

Now that the precedent of an oil exporter’s role in the global climate change debate has been set by the UAE, Azerbaijan can build on that example to hammer home the message that energy transition has to include all the economies of the world, not just the environmental radicals of the West.

Azerbaijan can talk directly to those governments in Europe who were all for doing away with hydrocarbons, until the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed the mathematics of the energy equation.

Now Azerbaijan has signed deals with European countries to export natural gas in ever-increasing quantities, doubling to 20 billion cubic metres by 2027, in a move that will no doubt anger Vladimir Putin and Greta Thunberg equally.

Oil and gas are Azerbaijan’s economic lifeblood, but that has not prevented the country seeing the long-term climate challenge. It has launched a number of high-profile renewable projects in partnership with the UAE and Saudi Arabia to prepare the country for the energy transition.

Baku’s Cop29 will probably be a smaller affair than the extravaganza in Dubai

In fact, Baku probably sees the dangers of environmental degradation more clearly than many of its European partners, having experienced the decades-long destruction of vast swathes of its environment at the hands of Soviet energy “experts” under communism. The Azerbaijan government is still clearing up the mess.

Despite these good intentions, Azerbaijan will probably face the same hostility from Western environmentalists and media that the UAE received in the run-up to Cop28.

The human rights lobby is still considering its formal position on Azerbaijan’s Cop, but, in a country where dissent is not officially encouraged, it is hard to see Baku getting a clean bill of health. Azerbaijan must be prepared for a stream of negative coverage of this aspect of its political society, and ignore it, just as the UAE did.

Such criticism is a distraction from the main business, which is to accelerate the campaign against global warming. It will make little difference to the outcome of the Cop.

Baku’s Cop29 will probably be a smaller affair than the extravaganza in Dubai (where nearly 100,000 people attended the two-week event), if only for the lack of hotel rooms by the Caspian.

The city is still working on ways to meet that challenge, as well as on the security and travel logistics of staging what will be the biggest event in the country’s history. 

There is one card that Azerbaijan can play that will dramatically improve its image. Having just won back the territory of Nagorno Kharabakh from Armenia, there is a new willingness to negotiate a long-term settlement between Baku and Yerevan.

Elin Suleymanov, the Azerbaijan ambassador to London, recently said it was his “dream” that Armenian and Azeri leaders could meet at Cop29 to forge a new relationship between the old enemies.

There is no guarantee this will happen, especially given Russia’s historic interest in the region. But it would top off Baku’s Cop29 if it did.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia

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