Corporate sustainability professionals, NGOs and activists have expressed their concern after Azerbaijan named Mukhtar Babayev, its current Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources, who worked at state-owned oil company SOCAR for 24 years, as president-designate of COP29.
This is the second time the world’s most important climate summit will be led by someone with strong ties with the fossil fuel industry. Pierre-Olivier Dubois, Sustainable Innovation and Circular Design Director at French telco Orange, expressed shock that “another oil industry face [was appointed] to preside over a climate conference”.
Other sustainability leaders were also taken aback by the decision. Jonathan Wragg, Global Sustainability Director at UK promotional materials provider Prominate, commented: “COP29’s choice of Mukhtar Babayev, with his longstanding connection to the oil industry, is a disappointing repeat of past mistakes.”
“In case you missed the newest on COP29 next year, don’t expect much!” added Dana Fischer, Director of the Centre for Environment, Community and Equity at American University.
Azerbaijan’s fossil fuel plans
The appointment was widely criticised by NGOs and activists, who worry that the dominant presence of oil and gas sector representatives is preventing climate talks from reaching a more ambitious agreement on the phase-out of fossil fuels. COP28, whose president, Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber is the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), ended in an agreement to “transition away” from fossil fuels, but allowed for a number of loopholes and fell short of calling for a complete phase-out.
“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,” said Alice Harrison, Fossil Fuels Campaign Leader at Global Witness. “We again call for the UNFCCC to urgently intervene and kick big polluters out of climate talks, to ensure the talks are held in good faith, and to remove those people who want to make a profit at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable people”.
Concerns over Babayev’s appointment were compounded by a Guardian article claiming that COP29 host Azerbaijan plans to increase gas production by a third over the next decade – a time when production decreases are considered crucial to meet temperature goals. Already, hydrocarbons represent 90% of the country’s exports, according to the International Energy Agency.
‘Strengthening the outcome of COP28’
However, others working in sustainability expressed hope that Babayev’s mandate as ecology minister and support of renewable energy development in the country, combined with his vast knowledge of fossil fuel interests, could set the scene for a possible paradigm shift in Azerbaijan.
Tasneem Essop, executive director at NGO network Climate Action Network International, reportedly said the group "welcomes the announcement of Mukhtar Babayev as COP29 president”, adding that he should "strengthen the outcome of COP28 on transitioning away from fossil fuels”.
Yasmin Shokri, CEO of US-based sustainability consultancy ESG+, called the decision “striking”, but added that Babayev's leadership “marks a critical juncture”: “Will this be a turning point for a nation deeply intertwined with fossil fuels to champion global climate action? The world watches as Azerbaijan takes a step towards aligning its policies with global climate goals and EU standards, particularly in agriculture and energy,” she said.