Petrol states are hosting climate summits. Maybe that’s not a bad thing?

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Azerbaijan will host the 2024 United Nations COP29 climate summit, the second in a row to take place in a major producer of oil, after this year’s event in the United Arab Emirates.

But after the unexpected breakthroughs at this year’s meeting, some are hoping that the conferences can make progress when held in countries built on oil wealth. 

Putting COP28 in Dubai prompted widespread skepticism. The UAE is an OPEC member, and its oil and gas production makes up more than a quarter of its gross domestic product.

How much progress on climate change was possible at a summit hosted by a country so dependent on oil production? Such questions were underlined when COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber claimed there was “no science” behind calls for phasing out fossil fuels, sparking outrage among attendees.

Yet the international talks came to a strong conclusion, with a final agreement that called for a “transition away” from fossil fuels for the first time in the COP’s history. This followed OPEC pressing nations late in the talks to block such language.

Both the breakthrough and the initial skepticism loom large after Baku was chosen as the site for the 2024 conference.

Azerbaijan is one of the biggest oil and gas producers in the Caucasus region. Its oil industry goes back to the mid-19th century, most of it produced offshore in the Caspian Sea for export, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“Ideally we wouldn’t be hosting COP with another petrochemical state,” said Cherelle Blazer, director of international climate policy at the Sierra Club, who attended the Dubai summit. “I think there’s less known about the dynamics, [but] guarded optimism for sure” ahead of COP29. 

Azerbaijan, unlike the UAE, is not an OPEC member but has been invited to join. Brazil, which has been selected as the 2025 host, is an OPEC member that produced about 2.94 million barrels of oil per day in 2020. 

“We have to continue to make progress with what we just accomplished at COP28, but I don’t think this is ideal for sure,” Blazer said. “We saw that open interference by OPEC, and I assume they would do the same thing next year. I assume they’ll apply the same pressure next year, even though the host country may not be [a member].”

A major oil producer hosting the summit “doesn’t have to preclude meaningful progress but I think it makes it more difficult,” Blazer added. “This is a conference that’s supposed to be protecting the environment, [but] it is a bit more of the fox guarding the henhouse.” 

Ultimately, “a lot of this exercise is performative, marketing and greenwashing,” said Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School.

“The key bit is to figure out how to have real change on the ground,” Wagner added.

Even COPs hosted by petrostates, he said, could effect meaningful change merely by rethinking their urban design to improve features such as public transportation, “transforming the city itself as a result of this traveling circus.”

“They have a lot of oil wealth — they could, if they wanted to, put in the Beijing metro system times two,” he said.

Wagner expressed hope that between now and COP29, Baku can add features including rapid bus lanes, “so when those 100,000 people show up, maybe do it for that one event and keep going.”

Kaveh Guilanpour, vice president for international strategies at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, noted that numerous European oil and gas producers have hosted COP summits in the past and that, despite skepticism around the Dubai COP, it was the site of unprecedented progress on fossil fuel language. 

The U.S. itself is producing more oil and gas than ever before, and climate advocates have said it must also lead by example if it intends to ask the same of other countries.  

“We have to square up what we say we want to do with what we’re actually doing,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said Thursday at The Hill’s “Enhancing Energy Efficiency: How Technology is Cutting Carbon Emissions” event. “You can’t teach temperance from a barstool.”

Guilanpour said he did not see evidence that Dubai sought to water things down at the recently concluded summit.

He said it’s possible that the UAE’s position in the Global South and the international oil market gave it credibility among participants, and that this might have led to a stronger final agreement. 

“I think it would have been much harder for a Northern country to have had the dynamic and the trust of, for example, regional partners and other fossil fuel producers,” he said. He contrasted it with less forceful language on coal that participants agreed to at the 2021 COP summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

“People who were certainly skeptical going into the COP[28] weren’t saying that by the second week,” he added.

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