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COP29: Another alarming conflict of interest

The president's former ties to Azerbaijan's state oil company are a major cause for concern

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Transparency Int'l

This year, Azerbaijan – a major exporter of oil and gas –, has been selected to host the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP29. Meanwhile, the country has less climate-friendly plans, like increasing its gas production threefold over the next decade, which is cause for concern.

Azerbaijan’s Ecology Minister, Mukhtar Babayev, will preside over COP29, which will be held in Baku from 11 to 22 November. Prior to starting his ministerial tenure in 2018, Babayev worked at the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (Socar) for over two decades. It’s alarming that for the second year in a row, global climate talks will be chaired by someone linked to the oil industry bringing risks of potential conflicts of interest to the table.

Although COP presidents have no say in decision-making, they play a key role in guiding the negotiations and putting forward compromises. As a result, Babayev’s former ties to the state oil company in a major oil-producing nation are a cause for concern.

During his presidency at COP28, Sultan Al-Jaber maintained his position as the Chair of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), a company that pumped 2.7 million barrels of oil per day according to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec). They plan to double that by 2027 and by 2030 the company has pledged to increase its carbon capture to 10 million tonnes per annum, while the president himself promoted business solutions involving carbon capture technologies.

Ahead of the conference, whistleblowers revealed that the United Arab Emirates intended to leverage their hosting of COP28 for oil and gas deals. This highlights the need for a collective commitment to address issues of undue influence to safeguard the public interest.

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Vested interests undermine climate policy and decisions

During the COP26 gathering in the UK in 2021, there were 503 fossil fuel lobbyists present. The following year, this number increased to 636 before surging to a staggering 2,456 during COP28.

COP28 also granted access to at least 475 lobbyists working on technologies, which climate scientists say will not curtail global heating, such geoengineering activities. These could have potential transboundary impacts and should be discussed and agreed upon at the relevant intergovernmental forum. They also need to be subject to clear conflict of interest, lobbying and anti-corruption rules to avoid a serious governance and public accountability gap. Non-government and community stakeholders should be part of the debate.

Including lobbyists with vested interests leads to undue influence. We saw its catastrophic consequences during the COVID-19 pandemic, when fossil fuel industries lobbied hard to win rescue funding and concessions for climate-damaging energy schemes, thanks to high-level relationships with EU and US decision-makers.

Undue influence comes to effect with a wide range of tactics with lobbyists taking control of the discourse and sometimes even the negotiations' outcomes. Visibility is usually bought through extensive PR and critical messages are amplified through influential individuals with a positive or neutral image (including academics) who are asked to give advice under their own names.

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Whose interests will be visible and heard?

During previous years, host countries for COP, including Egypt, UAE and now Azerbaijan have scored low on the world’s leading indicator for public corruption, the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Azerbaijan was one of the worst performers of its region in the 2022 CPI due to widespread corruption in the country, crackdowns on rival politicians and the limiting of civic space.

This raises concerns about whose interests will be visible and heard and whether their primary goal is to move away from fossil fuels. It’s crucial to discuss criteria for selecting COP host countries and presidents to curtail undue influence.

We remain firm in calling for a revision of COP rules, and we will continue to speak up until climate policymakers give this issue the attention it deserves. We call for a system without industry representatives with vested interests taking part in country delegations and demand action to stop such industries from unduly influencing the proceedings. This also means establishing an accountability framework at the national level and shedding light on global climate corruption cases.

To restore trust in the process and ensure good outcomes for the planet and its people, the global community must invest in integrity measures and ensure transparency in all emerging climate action approaches. This is an opportunity we must take – before it’s too late.

Blue pieces of icebergs in front of a mountain covered in snow

How can investing in integrity unlock the effects of climate action?

COP28 delegates and participants had the power to create a ripple effect in current and future climate investments by spending time and funding on comprehensive integrity measures. If initiatives have inbuilt integrity frameworks as the norm, they have the best chance of achieving their targets while reinforcing trust in the climate action process. It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.

How can investing in integrity unlock the effects of climate action?