Tony Blair seeks climate role at COP29 in Azerbaijan

LONDON — Tony Blair was once hired to lobby for a gas pipeline from Azerbaijan that activists described as a “carbon bomb.” Now he wants to help the Baku government run its climate talks.

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI), which was founded by the former U.K. prime minister in 2016, has approached the Azeri government with an offer of support for the COP29 climate talks in November, according to two people granted anonymity to speak about confidential discussions. 

The TBI did not deny the claims, saying only that it was not working with the COP29 hosts “at present.”

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and accounting firm Deloitte are also pitching for a role in COP29, both people said.

Blair’s history of promoting fossil fuel projects in the region highlights how the éminences grises who amassed power and capital in the age of coal, oil and gas carry their past contradictions and relationships into the fight against climate change. All this is happening at the same time as the companies now at the heart of running global climate talks retain long standing ties to the industry that is driving global warming.

Consultancies and think tanks have long assisted host countries with running the annual U.N. climate conference — often seconding staff to work alongside host government officials. BCG and TBI provided staff who took up prominent positions in the United Arab Emirates government organization that ran last year’s COP28 talks in Dubai. McKinsey & Company were also engaged by the UAE.

BCG and TBI provided staff who took up prominent positions in the United Arab Emirates government organization that ran last year’s COP28 talks in Dubai. | Giusepe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

BCG and McKinsey, along with Baker McKenzie, have played major and largely helpful roles in many U.N. climate conferences over more than a decade — providing expertise and support to countries hosting complex talks between almost 200 countries, with tens of thousands of delegates. 

All of these consultancies also have significant business with the fossil fuel industry. 

Consultancies and clean energy

“We should be concerned, certainly, about conflicts of interest,” said Rosie Collington, co-author of “The Big Con: How the Consulting Industry Weakens Our Businesses, Infantilizes Our Governments and Warps Our Economies.”

McKinsey, which is not actively pursuing a role at COP29, was criticized in reports for pushing for less ambitious versions of the final COP28 outcome. The company strenuously defended working with high emitting companies in order to green the economy.

For consultancies, providing services to COP host countries — often for no fee — can be a way to advertise their expertise in the burgeoning clean economy. They also claim that firewalls between their divisions mitigate against conflicts, climate related or otherwise, although Collington said those safeguards had been repeatedly breached in the past.

“Given the role that they have played in capitalism and economic development historically, I’m not convinced that they are best suited to be helping to drive governments and businesses to meet the objectives of the green transition,” said Collington.

Since leaving British politics in 2007, Tony Blair lobbied the Chinese government on behalf of PetroSaudi, a fossil fuel company owned by a Saudi prince. | Ryad Kramdi/AFP via Getty Images

Here, Blair and everywhere

Unlike large consultancy firms, the Tony Blair Institute is a non-profit organization, said a spokesperson. “Any fees paid to it go back into the Institute. Mr Blair personally receives no remuneration for the work he does for TBI.”

Blair took an active role at COP28 and has a long standing relationship with the president of those talks, Sultan al-Jaber, who is also the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. 

According to meeting notes prepared for al-Jaber obtained by the Centre for Climate Reporting and seen by POLITICO, , for example, Blair’s contacts in Africa were seen as highly useful in brokering a $4.5 billion clean energy finance deal. Al-Jaber, struggling under a mountain of bad press about his oil job, was also advised to ask Blair to help “build the media narrative.” 

It’s not clear if that meeting with Blair took place. The notes were first reported by the Times.

Regarding its support to the UAE, TBI said in a statement: “We offered strategic and policy insight to support COP28, entirely pro bono, because we want to help drive meaningful change. We did not ask for nor receive remuneration for our support.” 

COP28 was repeatedly criticized over the apparent conflict of interest between the goals of the conference and the economic interests of its oil-rich hosts. But the conference was not an outlier. Climate talks are regularly hosted in countries that are large oil, gas or coal producers — the U.K. itself hosts a major industry in the North Sea. COP28 was seen as a relative success by the standards of the annual U.N. meetings.

Tony Blair has built a particularly close relationship with the autocratic government of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev. | Pool photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

Consultancies and fossil fuel companies argue that involving the industry in the transition to clean energy is both realistic and essential. 

Graham Ackerman, a senior director of communications for BCG, said the group “continues to work with oil and gas companies given the critical role they play in breaking the hard trade-offs around the world’s energy trilemma: sustainability, affordability and security.” He added that BCG’s work in the industry “includes improving and decarbonizing oil and gas supply and accelerating investments in lower carbon energy systems.” He would not provide data on what percentage of BCG’s business was focused on expanding production of fossil fuels.

BCG has not signed a contract for COP29 work. Deloitte did not respond to repeated emails.

A TBI spokesperson said: “We are not at present contracted for the Azerbaijan government on COP29, but have always said we’re pleased to help governments working on COP.”

‘Nothing to do with COP’

To finance TBI’s work around the world, Blair has received donations from some of the world’s largest philanthropies, including recently a reported $375 million from the foundation of U.S. technology billionaire Larry Ellison. TBI has expanded its offering in the climate space dramatically in recent years, seeking to influence and advise heads of state and key ministers around the world.

TBI’s work on global issues like climate change and public health has helped Blair to reform his international image, which had become that of a diplomatic mercenary. Since leaving British politics in 2007, and before starting TBI, Blair worked for several governments including reportedly lobbying the Chinese government on behalf of PetroSaudi, a fossil fuel company owned by a Saudi prince.

President Ilham Aliyev has agreed to double Azerbaijan’s supply of gas to the EU. | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

He has built a particularly close relationship with the autocratic government of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev. Last year, the Azeri government was accused of ethnic cleansing of Armenians living in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In 2014, Blair was hired as an advisor to a BP-led consortium looking to build a pipeline from Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea gas fields to the south of Italy. He reportedly lobbied the Italian government on behalf of the project in 2018.

The Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), as the pipeline is known, was seen by climate advocates as a trap that would encourage Europe to use natural gas for longer than needed. Shortly after it came online in 2020, Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine began. To many of the project’s advocates, this justified their backing. The European Commission recently referred to it as “a crucial route of gas supply diversification for the EU.” Last year, Azerbaijan supplied about 3 percent of total EU gas imports. 

Aliyev has agreed to double Azerbaijan’s supply to the EU. Last month, according to state media, he warned that “general anti-fossil fuel trends” should not get in the way of European banks financing the expansion of the pipeline. The European Investment Bank, which has almost €1 billion in outstanding loans to the SGC, told POLITICO it would no longer support such projects because of their impact on the climate.

“The project was an essential part of supplying Europe’s gas needs from sources other than Russia,” said the spokesperson for TBI. “It has nothing to do with any COP work. And we would point out that, in any event, Europe will have need of gas for many years to come even if all climate commitments are met.”