SVE NEWS & FRANCE24.COM Sharing Series — ‘Pushes us closer to the abyss’: Former Azerbaijani oil executive to head COP29

Azerbaijan’s ecology minister and former oil executive Mukhtar Babayev was on Friday appointed to lead the United Nations’ annual climate talks in a move that has sparked concern among NGOs and environmentalists who voiced similar worries over last year’s COP28 chair Sultan Al Jaber, chief of the United Arab Emirates’ national oil company.

Azerbaijan's minister of ecology and natural resources Mukhtar Babayev speaks during a plenary session at the United Nations Climate Conference (COP28) in Dubai.This image grab made on January 5, 2024, taken from a video released by UN Climate Change on December 9, 2023, shows Azerbaijan’s minister of ecology and natural resources Mukhtar Babayev speaking during a plenary session at the United Nations Climate Conference (COP28) in Dubai. © AFP

For the second year in a row, global climate talks will be chaired by a man with ties to the oil industry.

Azerbaijan on Friday appointed Ecology Minister Mukhtar Babayev to preside over the upcoming UN conference to be held in Baku from November 11 to 22.

Babayev “has been named president-designate for the 29th session of the conference of the parties” (or COP29) in Baku, senior ministry official Rashad Allahverdiyev told AFP on Friday.

Babayev, 56, was formerly an executive at Azerbaijan’s national oil company SOCAR. He will soon take on the role previously held by Sultan Al Jaber – the UAE’s Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and CEO of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company – who chaired last year’s COP28.

Although COP presidents have no say in decision-making, they play a key role in guiding the negotiations and putting forward compromises.

The appointment of Babayev, who worked at SOCAR for 16 years, has sparked concern from NGOs and climate activists.

“There’s a sense of déjà vu setting in – we now have a former oil executive from an authoritarian petrostate in charge of the world’s response to the crisis that fossil fuel firms created,” Alice Harrison, Fossil Fuels Campaign Leader at Global Witness, said in a statement.

“Azerbaijan appointing another lifelong oil man to lead … pushes us closer to the abyss,” Collin Rees of Oil Change International told AFP.

Deep ties to Azerbaijan’s oil industry

However, Climate Action Network International (CAN) – the world’s largest environmental NGO network – said Friday that it “welcomes the announcement of Mukhtar Babayev as COP29 president”, according to AFP.

CAN Executive Director Tasneem Essop said Babayev should “strengthen the outcome of COP28 on transitioning away from fossil fuels”.

“Delivery of finance for this transition in developing countries” should be “a big priority for COP29”, she added.

As it stands, “little is known” about Babayev, who “has a much lower profile among climate diplomats” than his Emirati predecessor, according to the BBC. 

Born in Baku while Azerbaijian was still part of the USSR, Babayev served in the Soviet army.

Before entering the oil business, he studied political science at Moscow State University and worked in several Azerbaijani administrations.

He joined SOCAR in 1994, starting work in the foreign economic relations department before moving to the marketing and economic operations division.

From 2007-2010 he became vice-president in charge of ecology at the oil company, during which he organised an international conference on the rehabilitation of contaminated soils in 2008, according to French daily Le Monde.

Babayev’s career took a political turn in 2010, when he was elected member of parliament for the New Azerbaijan Party (Yap), the country’s main political party led by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev.

In 2018, he was appointed ecology minister. Last year, he represented his country at the COP28 climate conference in Dubai, where there was an “overall consensus” on Azerbaijan’s candidacy to lead COP29.

Until then, the country’s nomination had been blocked for months by Armenia and Bulgaria – who withdrew their bids in December.

An economy dependent on fossil fuels

As a former player in Azerbaijan’s oil industry, Babayev may find himself the target of criticism like his predecessor Jaber, who was accused of conflict of interest by environmental groups.

BBC report last November revealed that the COP28 president planned to make oil and gas deals during the climate conference, sparking an outcry from climate activists.

COP29 in Azerbaijan will also be reminiscent, in some respects, of last year’s climate conference in the Emirates. The burning of oil, gas and coal accounts for more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. One of the world’s largest oil producers in the early 20th century, Azerbaijan accounted for over 50 percent of global oil output.

From the 1990s onwards, the country developed large oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea. Today, gas has become more important than oil for Azerbaijan, and is mainly exported to Europe.

“The country remains very dependent on hydrocarbons, which account for a little under 50 percent of its GDP,” energy expert Francis Perrin of France’s Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) told AFP, as well as “a little over 50 percent of government revenue and over 90 percent of export earnings”.

The decision to hold climate conferences in countries that are major fossil fuel producers is becoming a major point of concern for NGOs.

“At some point … we’re going to have to question the credibility” of the nomination process, Romain Ioualalen of Oil Change International told Le Monde.

“There must be a very strict separation between [countries’] oil interests and COP presidencies,” he said.