Activists Call for Process ‘Overhaul’ After Oil Industry Veteran Confirmed to Lead COP29

Azerbaijan has selected its ecology minister—and a former executive at the country’s state-run oil company—to lead the United Nations’ flagship climate conference later this year. The decision has reignited fierce debate over the role the fossil fuel industry should play in global climate talks.

U.N. officials on Friday confirmed the appointment of Mukhtar Babayev as the COP29 president. Babayev ran Azerbaijan’s oil company SOCAR for nearly 25 years before becoming the nation’s minister of ecology and natural resources in 2018.

It’s the second year in a row that an oil industry veteran will oversee the negotiations, which aim to slash climate-warming carbon emissions and transition away from fossil fuels. It’s also the second consecutive year that the talks will be hosted by a petrostate—a country whose economy is heavily reliant on producing oil and gas. COP28 was held in the United Arab Emirates last year. Brazil, which is slated to host COP30 in 2025, will mark the third year.

Climate advocates say the pattern is proof that the U.N. summit’s process is flawed, and many are now calling for “a substantial overhaul” of the COP system, which has allowed countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States to single-handedly block decisions that otherwise would have passed.

Some activists also criticized the selection of Azerbaijan as this year’s host country. An analysis by U.K.-based advocacy group Global Witness found that oil giant BP and its project partners have invested $35 billion in oil and gas production by Azerbaijan’s government since 2020.

“The U.N. has largely lost the confidence of youth climate advocates who feel betrayed by what they see as a deck stacked heavily on the side of polluters,” Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist and professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science, wrote last month in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “Given the enormous conflict of interest, oil industry executives should not be allowed to heavily influence, much less preside over, the summit.”

Some advocates, including Mann, believe the U.N. should adopt new rules, such as financial penalties like tariffs that would be leveled at nations that attempt to thwart the global effort to transition away from fossil fuels, one of the main agreements ratified at last year’s negotiations. Many advocates also want decisions at the talks to be made by supermajority rather than the full-consensus system now in place, which allows just one of the 195 nations that signed the Paris Agreement to block a deal.

In fact, that’s how Azerbaijan—a former Soviet Union state—was elected to host this year’s climate talks in the first place. Next year’s COP was set to be held in eastern Europe. But Russian delegates had vowed to block any European Union country from hosting as retaliation to the bloc’s support of Ukraine in its war with Russia. Azerbaijan had been the only nomination to gain Russia’s approval.

Resistance at last year’s COP, specifically from Saudi Arabia and Russia, prompted prominent climate activist and former U.S. vice president Al Gore to criticize the United Nations’ conference, saying it “allows a single nation to veto what the rest of the world wants to do.”

Other activists, such as Tara Houska, founder of the Indigenous climate advocacy group Giniw Collective, have suggested moving away from the COP summits entirely. “Is there a point at which legitimate climate advocates cease legitimizing COP?” Houska posted on social media Friday, following Babayev’s appointment announcement. “It’s more than clear this gathering has been fully co-opted by fossil fuels. Is directing our energy to fighting over a conference worthwhile?”

It’s unclear just how Babayev will handle this year’s negotiations, and whether he’ll be able to avoid the scandals that plagued last year’s president Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, head of the UAE state-run oil company. Al-Jaber drew the ire of advocates after video surfaced of him saying there was no science backing the need to transition away from fossil fuels.

The Guardian reported that Babayev conveyed to U.N officials that his mission as his country’s ecology minister has been to “change the mentality” of Azerbaijanis about their responsibilities to the environment.

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Today’s Indicator

1.58°C

That’s how much higher scientists with the UK’s Met Office expect the average global temperature this year will rise above pre-industrial levels, topping last year’s record-breaking heat that was boosted by a strong El Niño.

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