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Why Hold a Climate Conference in a Despotic Oil Regime?  

COP29 must not become another opportunity to greenwash human rights violations.

By Josh Leach on May 30, 2024

If you had to select a site for the next international climate change conference—bringing together global leaders to address one of the biggest challenges facing humanity—chances are, your first choice would not be a corrupt petro-state with a recent history of ethnic violence. And yet, here we are

The 29th annual UN Conference of the Parties (COP29)—the most significant climate convening of the year—will be held in Baku, Azerbaijan. This is despite the fact that this South Caucasus country is a major exporter of oil and gas, and its government recently fought a war that expelled more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians from their homes.

It shouldn’t be this way. The COP meetings are supposed to be a chance for world leaders and civil society to meet together to work out mutual solutions to the ecological crisis facing the planet. Yet, increasingly, these annual conferences (which convene the parties, specifically, to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change) have served as opportunities for governments to try to burnish their image without taking real steps to address climate change. 

Last year’s COP was similarly situated in a country with an appalling human rights record and a longstanding addiction to fossil fuels. COP28, which UUSC and our partners attended as we usually do, was held in the United Arab Emirates: an authoritarian Gulf state with deep pockets stemming from the country’s extensive oil reserves. 

This choice of location was an apt prelude to the conference that followed. As we reflected at the time: COP28 showed, “the universal influence of fossil fuels and a shrinking space for civil society at global talks.”

The choice of Azerbaijan this year is likewise a bad sign of what we can expect. The Azerbaijan government’s bid to host COP29 has been described as a “climate charm offensive”— meant to paper over the regime’s blatant corruption, authoritarianism, fossil fuel dependence, and recent persecution of the country’s ethnic Armenian minority. 

It is noteworthy as well that Azerbaijan’s hosting of COP comes as U.S. federal prosecutors recently accused the country of bribing and corruptly influencing a sitting U.S. congressperson. The criminal indictment against Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas alleges that Azerbaijan’s diplomats sought to pay off Cuellar—through indirect transfers to his spouse—in order to muzzle potential criticism of the country’s treatment of its Armenian population.

Azerbaijan’s attempts to distract the world from its abhorrent human rights violations—which have been characterized as an ethnic cleansing and evoked memories of the Armenian genocide from more than a century ago—do not bode well for the COP29 meeting. They are a worrying sign that this conference may become yet another opportunity for corrupt governments and fossil fuel producers to massage their image without bringing real change. 

This is far from the goals we had in mind when UUSC and our partners first started attending these meetings. Our partners are fighting for a just future, in which communities will be compensated for the loss and damage they have suffered from climate change—not to help sugarcoat the reputation of the very governments and corporations who are responsible for causing the climate crisis in the first place. 

Yet, too many corrupt governments and self-interested corporate actors have co-opted these conferences to push an agenda contrary to these values. Authoritarian states like the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan exploit COP meetings to present themselves as “climate leaders”—when in reality, they are dependent on oil and gas revenues to fund their regimes.

Similarly, fossil fuel corporations and wealthy Global North governments use COP to present more hollow “pledges”— ”greenwashing” their images temporarily without committing to actual justice for the communities on the front lines of climate change. 

UUSC’s partners, however, will not submit to this corrupt distortion of the UN’s climate treaties. They are already crafting a comprehensive strategy to secure climate justice at the next COP. Even though the conference is being held in a less-than-ideal location, these proactive steps will help prevent the meeting from devolving into yet another exercise in corporate greenwashing and government PR. 

Instead, our partners will insist on real progress at COP29—and UUSC will be there to support them. Likewise, we applaud the solidarity of the 26 members of Congress who have used their positions to speak out against the appointment of a fossil fuel executive working for an authoritarian government as the leader of the next COP. Their advocacy on this important issue helps us prevent yet another climate conference from being co-opted by fossil fuel interests. 

You can help us advance our partner’s efforts to secure climate justice at the next COP meeting and stop the exploitation of these convenings for corrupt ends. A contribution to our Annual Fund helps us directly support our partners. You can also sign up for our email list to receive regular updates. 

Image credit: UUSC

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