Tuesday, May 21, 2024
 
 

COP 29: Azerbaijan takes the spotlight

COP29BAKU2024.ORG
Baku Azerbaijan will host COP 29 in November

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The next global climate conference, COP 29, will occur in November in Baku, Azerbaijan. The gathering is essential to continue discussing and developing strategies to address climate change worldwide. Moreover, the meeting will help to increase Azerbaijan’s image as a global player in the production of green energy.

Azerbaijan has become more active globally in the past decade, including being a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (2012-2013) and chair of the Non-Aligned movement (2019-2024). Moreover, due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, alternative trade routes that bypass Russian territory have become increasingly en vogue. Case in point, the Trans-Caspian International Route (TITR), commonly known as the Middle Corridor, is attracting much praise and attention in Brussels and other European capitals; due to its geographical location, Azerbaijan, particularly Baku Port, is a vital component of the Middle Corridor. Hence, the fact that Azerbaijan was selected to host COP 29 is not that surprising, as it occurs when the country’s roles in transportation, energy (via the Southern Gas Corridor), and diplomatic affairs are increasing.

As for the upcoming climate change summit, in January, Mukhtar Babayev, Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources of Azerbaijan, was appointed President-Designate for COP 29, with Yalchin Rafiyev, Deputy Foreign Minister, as Lead Negotiator. While the COP summit is still over half a year away, there are already hints about which topics Baku will focus on: “pollution, water shortages, and the need to help poorer countries get their hands on clean technology.” All these topics are linked to the situation in the eight countries that constitute the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Water loss and water security

Due to space limitations, we will briefly list some of the two regions’ pressing environmental challenges. Most are related to water issues, including water loss and water security. For example, the Aral Sea, shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, resembles a group of lakes nowadays more than a unified body of water. Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev warned as recently as this past September that the country could face water insecurity by 2050 if water management does not change.

Most of the Aral Sea has shrunk over the past decades. Photo from Asian Development Bank – adb.org

Two Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, had a series of border clashes during 2021 and 2022 related to access to water resources along their shared border. Alarmingly, in 2021, Central Asia suffered a deadly drought which hurt the region’s agricultural and cattle industries.

Pollution, desertification and deforestation

Other regional environmental threats exist. For example, air pollution is a severe problem in Kazakhstan’s Almaty, Uzbekistan’s Tashkent, and Kyrgyzstan’s Bishkek. A methane mega-leak in the second half of 2023 in a mine in Kazakhstan was reportedly worse than previously imagined. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan’s Gate To Hell remains open.

Environmental challenges in the Caucasus and beyond also occur. For example, Lake Urmia, in northern Iran, has become a ghost lake due to pollution, desertification, and water mismanagement by Iranian authorities. The loss of Urmia has severely affected the local Azerbaijan residents. 

Armenia suffers from illegal logging & deforestation and poor management of water resources. One major concern is the future of the Metsamor nuclear power plant; in 2021, the European Union called for the permanent closure of the plant since the plant cannot be modernized to meet internationally accepted standards. A statement by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the time argued, “a major nuclear or radiation accident at Metsamor would not only affect the people of Armenia, but citizens in neighboring Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, and southern Europe.” While it is unlikely that the plant itself will be discussed during COP 29, nuclear energy will likely be addressed, as well as both its potential and the dangers of operating old, Soviet-era nuclear facilities. Meanwhile, Georgia has to address land degradation, increased floods, and air and water pollution.

The importance of the Middle Corridor 

Finally, as previously mentioned, the Middle Corridor’s importance as a continuation and expansion of East-West and West-East trade routes continues to grow. The cornerstone of the Corridor, at a political level, is the strong partnership between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. This partnership was cemented during a March trip to Baku by President Tokayev. At a geographical level, the link between the Caucasus and Central Asia is the Caspian Sea, shared by five states (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan). Unfortunately, the health of the Caspian is also in danger due to overfishing and pollution. Moreover, research shows that water levels in the Caspian are decreasing, which will be hugely problematic for the future of shipping.

Reducing CO2 emissions

While the situation is problematic, there is some good news. Generally speaking, most Caucasus and Central Asian governments are willing to carry out green energy projects to reduce pollution, attain carbon neutrality, and protect their environmental resources. A regional framework, the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, exists to heal said body of water. Organizations like the European Union, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, World Bank, and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP)  are working with their partners across the Greater Caspian region to implement programs to address the challenges mentioned in this commentary. 

Moreover, last September, during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, there was a historic meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and the five Central Asian Presidents. The presidential C5+1 concluded with signing the New York Declaration, which will be the framework for Washington’s future interactions with Central Asia. The Declaration has a section on the environment, in which Washington pledges to work with its partners to address environmental challenges.

Focus on Caucasus and Central Asia

In other words, plenty of issues affect the Caucasus and Central Asia, which Baku should, and must, bring to the forefront of the discussion. While all eyes will naturally be focused on the final declaration and significant announcements and pledges by the world’s most developed nations and the biggest polluters, Baku must also ensure that its Caucasus and Central Asian neighbors and partners have a seat at the table during discussions and negotiations about climate change, environmental challenges, and green energy. Azerbaijan will have a double duty to ensure the summit’s success.

In previous analyses, I have suggested that there should be a Green 5+1 summit between U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for the Environment John Kerry and his Central Asian counterparts (a similar meeting occurred only once, and virtually, in 2021). While the American Presidential elections and COP 29 will occur very close to each other, this November 2024, Washington should send a high-level delegation to Baku to organize a Green 5+1, giving the COP summit more credibility. 

A plethora of environmental issues must be addressed (in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and worldwide) while the effects of climate change become more dire and destructive. The COP meetings are a vital tool in humanity’s toolkit where relevant players and agencies discuss how to work together to, quite literally, save the planet. Thus, the responsibility that falls on Baku’s shoulders is quite significant. Because of initiatives like the Middle Corridor and energy projects, Azerbaijan’s international relevance continues to increase, and the upcoming COP 29 summit will be a test to see if Baku is ready to continue its rise as a global actor.

 

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President of Second Floor Strategies, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C. He covers geopolitical, defense, and trade issues in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Western Hemisphere.

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