Since the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, the parties to the convention have met 28 times since the first COP, as it came to be known, was held in Berlin in 1995.

The most recent, COP28 in 2023, was hosted by the government of the United Arab Emirates in Dubai. COP29 will be held this year in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. This has raised a few eyebrows.

In endorsing the hosts of these “negotiating sessions” (as COPs are known in UN-speak), the UNFCCC secretariat has taken a pragmatic approach. Internal politics of each host-country is kept separate from the overarching goal of fighting climate change. Clearly, waiting for each UN member to comply with a certain standard of political behaviour, before the community of nations takes collective action on reducing emissions, would get us nowhere.

The other reason for keeping politics separate from the fight against climate change is that it’s not always clear how the former impacts the latter. In 2020 the leader of the free world, the United States of America, exited the 2015 Paris Agreement, the most important climate treaty in decades, thereby joining non-signatories Iran, Libya, and Yemen. It has since rejoined.

Nevertheless, the US is still the world’s largest emitter of green-house gasses (GHG) and has only a quarter of renewable energy capacity as China.

But, even if the UN has wisely delegated the power of choosing the host-country to the parties themselves (as long as COP is held in a different global region every year, and there are 5 designated regions), the suitability of Azerbaijan as COP29 host has been questioned.

Should a conference on fighting climate change, meaning a conference on reducing the role of fossil fuels in the world’s economy, be held twice in a row by major fossil fuel producers? Especially as the UAE has taken advantage of networking opportunities at COP28 to negotiate oil and gas deals.

This is not just a reputational problem. The progress on the Paris Agreement has been sluggish. The treaty requires governments to act collectively to keep global warming under 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels, but the goal has proved elusive. Average global temperatures keep rising. UNFCCC wants countries “to communicate actions they will take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in order to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement”, but vectors of resistance are coming from three directions.

Politicians in developed countries are worried that climate change prevention measures will impact living standards, hence their own electability. Second, developing countries feel aggrieved at what they perceive as decarbonisation constraints to growth. And finally, quite a few fossil fuel producing nations don’t seem to have a plan B on how to plug the gap in GDP once the world switches to renewables. Hence, they continue business as usual, even at a conference on fighting climate change.

Transition story to tell

Fortunately, Azerbaijan has a better energy transition story to tell than most. Yes, it exports around 80% of its oil and gas. And yes, the International Energy Agency surmises that “Azerbaijan has an estimated 2.5 trillion cubic metres of proven natural gas reserves… expected to continue contributing significantly to the economy in upcoming decades.”

However, there are signs that under President Ilham Aliyev the country is getting ready for a low-carbon transition, by husbanding its fossil fuel resources and developing a diverse pipeline of renewable energy projects.

It is the only country planning offshore wind projects in the Caspian Sea, while also developing the largest solar plant in the Caucasus and Caspian region. Significantly, Azerbaijan has grasped the importance of plugging into trans-continental supergrids, one of the proposed means of regulating fluctuations in renewable energy supply and demand. It plans to export 5GW of electricity by 2030 through the proposed Caspian-Black Sea-European Green Energy Corridor. The country is partnering with Masdar, one of the world’s largest renewable energy companies.

Buoyed by these examples of international cooperation in the energy sector, Azerbaijan’s officials are striking a note of cautious optimism. COP29 President Designate Mukhtar Babayev has said that “the climate challenge may be daunting, but it is not insurmountable. Because climate change is a shared challenge, its solution can lie only in mutual support and collective action.”

These are hopeful words. What the world really needs is a successful example of a petrostate transitioning to low-carbon. An example that tells us that if they can do it, then anyone can. And perhaps COP29 will offer us one.

  • Nick Medic is a climate communications consultant supporting a programme to enhance Azerbaijani media reporting of green energy developments, and the forthcoming COP29 in Baku