The (Long) Road to COP29

We’ve arrived at the halfway point on the (long) road to COP29. In six months, tens of thousands of international delegates will once again convene for the next iteration of the Conference of Parties (COP). This time in Baku, Azerbaijan. 

The conference will pick up where COP28 – hosted last year in the United Arab Emirates – left off. COP28 yielded the first global agreement to transition away from fossil fuels, secured agreement to a massive expansion of clean energy and saw the operationalisation of the Loss and Damage Fund agreed at COP27. However, it notably fell short of agreeing to the full phase-out of fossil fuels, which more than 100 countries had sought. COP29 negotiators now shoulder the burden of formulating agreement on these ongoing and ever more pressing challenges. 

Below is a primer on what progress COP29 might bring, and importantly, the ongoing sources of contention which may limit how much progress will be made come November. 

Priorities for Progress

COP29 President, Muhktar Babayev, has outlined two ‘pillars’ of priorities for the conference: enhancing ambition and enabling action. Within the former, sits plans to support nations to enhance the ambition and implementation of their national plans for emissions reductions. The latter, focuses primarily around climate finance – invariably a sticking point in climate negotiations. 

The global green transition is estimated to cost US$9 trillion a year, yet in 2021/22, committed funds equated to just $1.3 trillion. Babayev has announced that at COP29, Azerbaijan will seek to agree a ‘new collective quantified goal’. Details of what the goal would entail, and the scale of its ambitions, remain scant but the ambition is for it to replace the former Paris Agreement pledge of US$100 billion per year for developing countries, which was met for the first time (several years late) in 2023. COP29 will also inherit the task of funding many of the agreements made at COP28. The Loss and Damage fund, for example, will require a significant uplift in commitments, with the $700 million raised so far falling far short of replenishing the estimated $400 billion in losses that developing countries face each year. The big question for 2024 is whether the political will exists for such an enormous funding push to happen.

Azerbaijan has of course stated other goals, including ushering in an actionable roadmap to achieving the COP28 clean energy pledges and tackling water mismanagement. But the other flagship priority is to make a breakthrough on technology transfers, to provide developing nations with access to state-of-the-art green technologies, in order to promote greater self-sufficiency. Efforts to scale up technology transfer are not new to multilateral ambitions, and are written into Article 10 the Paris Agreement. Yet past efforts have underperformed – for reasons ranging from higher costs and risks in many developing countries, to gaps in the infrastructure, systems and regulations to enable new technologies to compete with traditional systems like coal.

The COP29 team also wants the conference to be a turning point in repairing the trust between the developing and developed worlds. In this vein, Azerbaijan, along with the UAE and Brazil, have launched the COP Presidencies Troika, a mechanism aimed at ensuring the summits ‘transition away from staging grand announcements’ to a platform for continuity – unlocking funds more swiftly, and reinstating faith in the global ‘north’s’ commitment to tackling climate change. 

Finally, what isn’t defined as a priority is often as telling as what is. Given Azerbaijan’s defence of its ongoing investment and production of fossil fuels, likelihood is low that the final text of COP29 will agree to phase-out fossil fuels. Instead, we can expect the continuation of the global ‘transition away’, and a focus on increasing renewable energy production.

Points of Contention

However, like many recent COPs, COP29 already finds itself embroiled in controversies that will no doubt loom over the event. 

With Azerbaijan itself having plans to expand natural gas production by more than a third over the coming decade, concerns abound about the legitimacy and authenticity with which Azerbaijan can lead COP29. More existentially, the pattern of two of the largest petro-states hosting COP28 and COP29 has prompted activists to question the legitimacy and future of the COP structure, particularly following the attendance of fossil fuel stakeholders at COP28. A number of civil society actors have already threatened to boycott the Baku talks altogether. 

The UK’s own climate backsliding has also played a role in this growing skepticism, with legitimate concerns arising around hosts announcing grand commitments and policies, which are then soon-retracted post-Presidency, as a cost of shifting political environments. Critics fear that the COP process is quickly becoming a fora for performative and transitory commitments, that may be stalling the process or even operating as a hindrance to the energy transition. A substantial boycott, particularly from civil society, would stand to impact the legitimacy of Baku, and the future of COPs more widely.

The Azerbaijan Presidency has also received backlash over its commitment to both gender equality and human rights. Notably, the original organising committee for COP29 comprised 28 men and no women, and while this was quickly rectified, the oversight raised concerns over Azerbaijan’s commitment to tackling the broader trend of side-lining gender perspectives in climate discourse. In addition, Azerbaijan’s conflicts with neighbouring Armenia, including the most recent military takeover of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, have led to widespread condemnation against Baku. While collaboration with less-like-minded partners is increasingly recognised as necessary in tackling the transnational climate crisis, concerns about human rights and values are compounding criticism about the host. 

The Role of Geopolitics

Azerbaijan also inherits the Presidency at a time of great geopolitical turbulence. The Russia-Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas wars particularly have further polarised nations and will certainly undermine nations’ willingness to collaborate on climate change. Notably, Baku organisers have expressed desire for COP29 to be a COP of peace’ – tying the issues of the climate crisis and national security by focusing on preventing future climate-fuelled conflicts, and using international cooperation around climate action to help heal existing geopolitical tensions. Indeed, Baku would like to see nations observe a ‘COP truce’ – seeing a suspension of hostilities for the duration of the conference – but this is unlikely to come to fruition.

In addition, COP29 will be held at the end of a bumper year of elections, during which over half of the global population – including six of the world’s biggest carbon emitting countries – will have headed to the polls. As governments across these nations turn inwards to seek re-election, it will undoubtedly test their appetites in tackling climate change. Notably, the United States’ presidential election takes place a mere 6 days before COP29 begins. If President Biden holds the White House, there are questions regarding his preparedness to progress his traditional agenda at the conference. Meanwhile, if (predicted-Republican-nominee and climate-sceptic) Trump retakes the White House, there are fears that COP29 will be overshadowed by unease from all parties over the US – the world’s second-largest carbon emitter – withdrawing its commitment to climate action once again. 

Baku is faced with the assuredly mammoth task of reinforcing the appropriate sense of duty among developed states towards collective action, and in turn generating a massive funding push, all while navigating widespread waning confidence, and potentially political commitment, to the COP process. COP29 will undoubtedly be extensively scrutinised, given the number of controversies surrounding it, but its success in securing commitments – from technology transfers to climate finance – will likely only go so far. The real test for success will come when it is time for accountable nations to action their pledges; this is when we’ll be able to measure the true marker of Baku’s success – how well it  rallies the world in authentically and consistently committing to climate action.

Eliza Keogh

Eliza Keogh is a Researcher and Programmes Manager at BFPG