UN climate conference COP 29 | Will host city Baku see fires of change?

As the Azerbaijani capital readies to host the UN climate conference in November, it also negotiates the country’s history as the birthplace of oil

Updated - July 07, 2024 06:16 pm IST

Published - July 04, 2024 03:36 pm IST

Persian New Year celebrations at Ateshgah (fire temple) of Baku, Azerbaijan.

Persian New Year celebrations at Ateshgah (fire temple) of Baku, Azerbaijan. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

This November, the city of Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, will host the 29th edition of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 29), the annual conclave of heads of state, diplomats, business delegations, and activists, who amidst a media blitz, will wrangle an incremental deal to tarry the climate crisis.

The tradition, as far as these conferences go, is that the host country also assumes the presidency of the Conference of Parties (COP), and as such, must work towards steering country-delegations with differing positions to consensus. This includes getting countries to take steps to transition their economies away from fossil fuels and lay out plans to curb their use of coal, oil and gas. It, however, will be a delicate balancing act for COP 29 president Mukhtar Babayev, who is Minister of Ecology and was once a senior executive for SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s national oil company.

Last year, Sultan Ahmed Al Jabar — the COP 28 president and head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) — waded into considerable controversy over his conflicting responsibilities. It is quite likely that Babayev will face similar heat but what makes this even more tricky is that in Baku, oil and gas aren’t things to be ashamed of. They are visibly venerated in the city’s public spaces and, unlike in the UAE, deeply linked to the country’s heritage and cultural fabric.

Underground blazes

The name Azerbaijan, in popular history, translates to ‘land of fire’, in reference to the geological deposits of naphtha and gas that have through history nursed the striking phenomenon of ‘natural fires’, or blazes that erupt spontaneously from underground. These have, for millennia, fired the popular religious imagination.

Burning gas in the mud volcanoes of Gobustan in Azerbaijan.

Burning gas in the mud volcanoes of Gobustan in Azerbaijan. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Zoroastrianism, believed to have its origins in the region, has held these natural fires as sacred, and they are today memorialised in structures such as the Ateshgah near Surakhani town, and the Maiden Tower, situated on the outskirts of what is today the old Baku.

The Ateshgah, which derives from Farsi and alludes to a ‘fire temple’, has been a holy spot for at least a millennia because of the presence of natural fires. Indian travellers and traders have visited the place over centuries — in sojourns along the Silk Route — and contributed to the construction of the structure as it stands today. There are inscriptions in Sanskrit, as well as Punjabi and Devanagari . The Maiden Tower in Baku city, though ascribed to different legends, is a 30-metre-high tower completed in the 12th century, and was also once a fire temple and linked to the region’s Zoroastrian and pre-Islamic heritage.

The central altar at Ateshgah fire temple in Baku.

The central altar at Ateshgah fire temple in Baku. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Visitors to the Ateshgah will still see the flames, but these are no longer natural. Instead, they are fuelled artificially by piped gas from Baku. Pipelines inveigled themselves into the region’s landscape from the mid-19th century. Azerbaijan was the home of the world’s first ‘oil boom’, after European and American industrialists discovered the region’s vast oil resources as a source for extracting natural gas and distilling kerosene — a replacement for whale oil that was the pre-electric world’s fuel of choice for heating and lighting.

The Nobel Brothers — Robert and Ludvig — were the first European prospectors to set up an oil extraction industry in and around Baku, helped by their brother, Alfred — of dynamite- and Nobel Prize-fame. In the early 20th century, their establishment, Branobel, was the largest oil company in Europe and responsible for nearly half the world’s oil production. Their house in Baku, now preserved as ‘the Nobel Brothers Museum’ is part-museum and part-club, where oil magnates, who are members, still host get-togethers, business meetings and entertain heads of state in its plush halls resplendent in 19th century European decor.

Ode to fossil fuel

In the 21st century, some of the city’s most prominent landmarks are an ode to its fossil fuel wealth. From nearly anywhere in mainland Baku, it is impossible to miss a group of three skyscrapers — collectively known as the Flame Towers. While megaliths of steel and glass, and a luxury commercial-residential complex that is 180 metres high and illuminated, they are shaped like flames, alluding to the city’s heritage.

Flame Towers, a luxury commercial-residential complex, in Baku.

Flame Towers, a luxury commercial-residential complex, in Baku. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

“The luxury business centre in the shape of the flames becomes literally a shining symbol of Azerbaijan’s 21st century oil capitalism, with all the wealth, glamour, social exclusion, and division that it brings,” said scholar Leyla Sayfutdinova of the University of Glasgow, in an essay on the relationship between the oil industry and urban development in Azerbaijan.

In the past century, its fossil fuel economy has seen the country traverse the extremes of economic transformation from being incorporated into the former Soviet Union and then, since 1991, becoming an independent Muslim-majority but secular country where its broad roads are lined by European luxury fashion stores. Formula 1 cars have been zipping around the city since 2016. Electricity is gas-based and Azerbaijan has twice more installed electric capacity than what its population needs — the rest is exported. Orkhan Zeynalov, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Minister of Energy, said in an interview that while the country had set up, and planned on expanding, its solar farms, it would be “challenging” to convince the population — used to cheap oil and electricity — to adopt the more-expensive version from renewable sources.

Vehicles in traffic in Baku as the city prepares for COP 29 climate conference in November.

Vehicles in traffic in Baku as the city prepares for COP 29 climate conference in November. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

As COP 29 hosts, the country is committed to its responsibilities, said Hikmet Hajiyev, top foreign policy advisor to Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev. And it will highlight the steps it is taking to effect both “medium- and long-term plans” to transition to renewable energy. Baku’s position as a port on the western end of the Caspian Sea — the world’s largest lake — means it is prone to howling gales nearly all year. “People often curse the wind here, but this might now turn out to be a blessing as we will hopefully be able to set up offshore wind turbines and supply renewable electricity to our [Central Asian] neighbours,” he said.

At the Nobel museum, there is a granite statue of a pensive Alfred Nobel holding a French newspaper. The story behind it, recounted Fuad Gasimov, director of the museum, is that Alfred was reading an obituary with the headline ‘The merchant of death is dead’. The obituary had wrongly attributed his brother Ludvig’s death to Alfred and referenced his invention of dynamite and its association with explosions and destruction. “It is said that this led him to worry about how he would be remembered after his death and which then sparked the idea of the Nobel Prize,” said Gasimov. Nobel’s inspiration may be an apocryphal tale, but whether COP 29 influences Azerbaijan’s future legacy is a story that is still unfolding.

(The writer was part of a South Asia media delegation invited to Baku.)


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