Oil industry veteran to lead next round of Cop climate change summit

Cop29, the next round of UN talks to tackle the climate crisis, will be led by another veteran of the oil and gas industry. Mukhtar Babayev, Azerbaijan’s ecology and natural resources minister, has been appointed the president-in-waiting for the Cop29 climate talks when they take place in the country in November. Before his entry into politics in the autocratic country in western Asia, once a Soviet republic, Babayev spent 26 years working for the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (Socar). Close observers of the Cop process will see parallels with the appointment of Sultan Al Jaber, who moonlighted from his role as the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company to preside over the summit when it took place in Dubai last year. Sceptics have already begun to point to Babayev’s appointment as raising questions over the commitment to the global phase-out of fossil fuels in Azerbaijan. The country relied on oil and gas for more than 92.5% of its export revenue last year, according to the US government’s International Trade Administration. But Babayev does have form in environmental protection, having spent three years as Socar’s vice-president for ecology, in which time he oversaw efforts to remediate Azerbaijan’s contaminated soils. The country is wrestling with a number of severe ecological problems, including, after 160 years of oil production, decades-worth of damage from the petrochemical organisations that operate there. Born in Baku while Azerbaijan was still part of the USSR, Babayev served in the Soviet military before studying political science at Moscow State University and then foreign economic relations at the Azerbaijan State University of Economics. He joined Socar in 1994, working in foreign economic relations and marketing until his appointment as the company’s ecology tsar in 2008. According to a US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, on his appointment to that role Babayev hosted the first ecology conference in Azerbaijan’s history. In the environment role, he described remediation as the “shared mission and moral imperative” of all Azerbaijanis, but also said that any fall in oil prices could hamper efforts. US diplomats reported him as saying in a subsequent meeting that his mission was to “change the mentality” of Azerbaijanis about their responsibilities to the environment, and even joking that his new role made him and Socar’s first vice-president “enemies”. But he reportedly emphasised his role was to change Socar’s attitude to the environment while nonetheless continuing to develop Azerbaijan’s oil industry. In 2010, Babayev entered politics, becoming an MP for the ruling New Azerbaijan party, which has won every election in the country since 1993. He was appointed minister for ecology in 2018, in which role he has fulminated against alleged ecological destruction by Armenians living in territories claimed by Azerbaijan. Simon Stiell, the UN climate change executive secretary, welcomed the appointment, exhorting his team to work with Babayev and Yalchin Rafiyev, his lead negotiator, to deliver “a successful Cop29”. The Azerbaijan government has been approached for comment.

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