Tackling Climate Change in the Birthplace of Oil


For the second year in a row, the United Nations climate summit known as COP will take place in a petrostate.

COP29 will be in Baku, Azerbaijan, and overseen by Mukhtar Babayev, who worked for more than two decades at Socar, Azerbaijan’s state-owned oil company. There’s a precedent: Last year’s climate summit was controversially hosted by the United Arab Emirates and led by Sultan Al Jaber, who also runs the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

Many activists fiercely opposed Al Jaber’s involvement, but COP28 was ultimately seen by many as a success. His ability to corral fossil-fuel-producing countries like his own helped yield an agreement that saw countries pledge to “transition away” from fossil fuels.

It remains to be seen whether Babayev, a former low-ranking executive who is now Azerbaijan’s environment minister, will have the same impact. But there is also a poignant historical resonance to COP29: By some measures, Azerbaijan is where the modern oil industry began.

Oil ‘bubbled up from the ground’

Oil has been used in Azerbaijan for thousands of years, as lamp fuel and medicine. Historians believe this 13th century account from the explorer Marco Polo refers to Baku:

“Near the Georgian border there is a spring from which gushes a stream of oil in such abundance that a hundred ships may load there at once. This oil is not good to eat; but it is good for burning and as a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scab.”

“Azerbaijan was known for this oil that bubbled up just out of the ground by itself,” said Steve LeVine, the author of a book about the oil in the Caspian Sea region who writes an energy newsletter for The Information.

In the 19th century, Azerbaijan was the site of multiple innovations that gave rise to the modern oil industry, including one of the first mechanically drilled oil wells and the first oil tanker.

The country’s oil industry was built largely by Robert Nobel, the brother of the dynamite inventor and philanthropist Alfred Nobel, along with another brother, Ludvig. In 1873, Robert was sent south from Russia to find walnut trees to be used to make rifles to be sold to the czar’s army, but instead stumbled on Baku’s fledgling oil industry. He spent the ‘walnut money’ to buy a small refinery.

In 1884, The Times reported that Baku was supplying all of Russia with oil, and “will no doubt supply a great part of Europe, India, and China.” By 1900, Baku was providing about half the world’s oil, with most of the rest coming from the United States.

Robert Nobel and his family reaped enormous profits, some of which eventually helped to create the Nobel Prize endowment.

“He invented the oil industry as we know it today,” LeVine said.

Azerbaijani oil today

Azerbaijan’s oil, extracted for millenniums, is expected to run out in about 25 years. But the country still has vast natural gas reserves, and plans to hike its output by a third in the next decade.

The country’s fossil fuel sector accounts for 90 percent of its exports and two-thirds of its income.

Oil brought development to Azerbaijan. The country had electricity, LeVine said, before many other parts of the Russian empire. Its streets are dotted with majestic buildings and gleaming high rises.

But oil money also created fertile ground for corruption, and created the conditions for human rights abuses and censorship by the country’s authoritarian government. Protesters, critics and reporters are often imprisoned.

Heydar Aliyev, who was appointed as the country’s leader in 1969 when it was still part of the Soviet Union, ruled until his death in 2003. His son, Ilham Aliyev, has been the president of Azerbaijan since. (The Aliyevs were prominent characters in the Panama Papers, a 2016 corruption investigation.)

After the Soviet Union fell, the United States heavily promoted investment in oil and gas pipelines in Azerbaijan to curb Russia’s influence.

Oil and optics

In recent years, Azerbaijan has hosted international events such as the Eurovision song contest to bolster its image. Natalie Koch, a professor of geography at Syracuse University who has been researching the Caspian Sea’s oil industry for the last 15 years, sees this year’s climate conference as part of that strategy.

As my colleague Max Bearak reported, Azerbaijan became the host of this year’s climate conference through a long and difficult process stymied in large part by Russian obstruction.

The conference rotates between different regions, with Eastern Europe or the Caucasus up this year. Russia was able to essentially veto any candidate that opposed its war in Ukraine.

The candidate pool was whittled down to Armenia and Azerbaijan, which had been fighting a war against each other until last year. In exchange for Azerbaijan releasing prisoners of war, Armenia dropped its opposition to Azerbaijan’s COP29 hosting bid.

The summit may highlight Europe’s continued dependence on oil and gas, even as the region strives to be the global leader in climate policy, Koch argued. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Azerbaijan’s gas exports to Europe gained importance.

And while there is an unavoidable conflict in a petrostate hosting a climate summit, it may also be fitting: The country that was home to the oil industry’s beginnings may also host negotiations that could one day bring the petroleum era to an end.

“It is possible to frame it as something of a closure,” Koch said.

The space race is causing pollution problems

The number of rocket launches has spiked in the past few years as commercial companies — especially SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk — and government agencies have lofted thousands of satellites into low-Earth orbit. Now scientists are growing concerned that the new space race is scattering troubling amounts of pollutants in pristine layers of the atmosphere.

Rocket exhaust pales in comparison to the exhaust emitted by aviation. But scientists are concerned that even small additions to the stratosphere — home to the ozone layer, which shields us from the sun’s harmful radiation — will have big effects.

In the short term, the launches could have a cooling effect on the atmosphere, not unlike an erupting volcano, which creates sulfate aerosols, warming the stratosphere while blocking heat from hitting Earth’s surface. But scientists are also concerned that black carbon, or soot, could deplete the ozone layer.

This is just the beginning. There could eventually be as many as one million satellites orbiting the planet, requiring an even greater number of space launches that could yield escalating levels of emissions. — Shannon Hall

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This article was originally published by a www.nytimes.com . Read the Original article here. .