A Tale of Oil Rigs and Windmills: Environmental History and Hope in Azerbaijan

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By: Maia Zasler

From: Sciences Po Menton

Heydar Aliyev, former President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, famously phrased the country’s vision for its natural resources: “Oil is the greatest wealth of Azerbaijan and belongs to the people, and not just to the current generation, but also the generations to come.” Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan was left in political and economic disarray; Azeris needed a long-term, national development plan that would turn their resources into a means of profit. For Azerbaijan, these resources are oil and natural gas.

However, an implicit paradox emerges when overlapping the use of oil and natural gas with any long-term, national strategy. Oil and natural gas are not renewable; their longevity is finite. The natural gas deposit that has kept the flames of the holy site of Atashgah lit through the heaviest of rainfalls, the strongest of snow storms and bouts of breeze, has run out; the existing flames have remained artificially kindled since the 1960s. The fire that burns in a wall of stone at Yanardag, a fire that has burned for thousands of years, will inevitably face the same fate. At current consumption levels, Azerbaijan has an estimated 30 years of oil dependency left (Robson and Haslam 2023). Meanwhile, natural gas production and exports are projected to increase as Azerbaijan sells a greater amount to Europe, primarily from the Shah Deniz field via the Southern Gas Corridor. Natural gas accounts for a greater portion of total energy consumption, comprising roughly two thirds of the nation’s total (oil consumption accounts for the final third).

Walking through the streets of Baku, one sees Old City buildings, mosques, and saffron stores juxtaposed with the sleek Flame Towers and modern architecture along the Caspian Sea. There is smog in the air. Although the current PM2.5 concentration—particulate matter from the combustion of gasoline, oil, diesel fuel or wood produce—is 2.2 times above the World Health Organization’s recommended limit, it has halved since the 1990s (Baku Air Quality Index). A drive outside of Baku center will feature small oil rigs that peek out above fences bordering sidewalks. Although still high, the annual change in primary energy consumption has encouragingly been on the decline since 2021.

This November 2024, Azerbaijan will be hosting COP29. The main decision makers of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will gather in Baku to commit to climate provisions, emission reductions, and green investment. In such a unique landscape where fossil fuel use is fused with national history, what does green growth entail? Is it even possible?

Current Climate Concerns

i. Air Pollution

Azerbaijan is known as the oldest industrial oil-producer in the world, dating back to 1871 in the Balakhany-Sabunchun-Romany oil field in the Absheron peninsula. Oil extraction dramatically accelerated during the Soviet period. Petroleum-related processes have historically been—and continue to be—conducted near densely populated hubs in / near Baku, posing dangers to human health and to the environment. Extraction produces nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide, benzopyran, formaldehyde, phenol, carbon-sulphidem and hydrogen fluoride. These pollutants are known to cause respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, and metabolic diseases (Mammadova and Rostamnia 2022). Despite recent improvements in previously low-quality air cleaning technologies that maintained a much lower capacity to reduce damaging chemicals emitted from industrial sites, ecological crises and looming health concerns persist.

The presence of pollutants is exacerbated by an increasing number of transport vehicles and the use of old cars on Azeri roads, despite investments in public transportation. Vehicle emissions are responsible for 80% of the gaseous substances causing air pollution (Mammadova and Rostamnia 2022). The pervasive reliance on individual motor vehicles generates an elevated demand for fuel, only increasing the emissions of deleterious pollutants.

90% of vehicles used have been on the road for more than five years, many of which are driven with technical issues, raising levels of waste (Mammadova and Rostamnia 2022). The widespread adoption of electric vehicles poses several challenges such as a lack of adequate infrastructure for charging stations and insufficient capital. Passenger public transport options have grown, whether by bus or by train, but there remains opportunity to expand and decarbonize these systems. This phenomenon, of course, is not limited to the case of Azerbaijan.

ii. Water Pollution

The Caspian Sea is a key resource to Central Asia. Biologically diverse, it contains a distinct ecosystem with hundreds of endemic species. Additionally, the Caspian connects to rivers and wetlands that provide habitat and nutrients to a wide array of flora and fauna.

The copious waterways also make for a repository of pollutants. An average 12 billion cubic meters of untreated wastewater, 1,500 tons of oil waste, and 3,400 tons of active synthetic substances are discharged into the Caspian Sea by bordering, littoral states each year (Bayramli 2020). To date, three-quarters of Caspian surface water is tainted, contributing to the radioactivity indicator in living organisms increasing from 10 to 30 times.

Azeri oil fields in the Caspian Sea date back to the 1950s. Every state owned sector since the Soviet period has been contaminated at some level, and toxins continually invade Azeri rivers and lakes. Kura and Aras are the largest rivers in the country, stretching through Georgia and Armenia. Although pollution sites are concentrated upstream, near Tbilisi, river water is further blighted by municipal waste in Azerbaijan. Clean water that can be used is occasionally wasted by inefficient and outdated irrigation systems.

iii. Soil Pollution

Soil is biotic; it lives and grows and breathes. Its health is integral to productive agriculture and the survival of innumerable microorganisms. The concentration of pollutants generated by anthropogenic activities—often relating to agriculture—damages soil surface and penetrates deep into the ground. The creation of arable or polluted land occurs quickly in comparison to the estimated 1,000 years of natural soil recovery.

Soil pollution in Azerbaijan is tied to the oil industry as well as excessive use of agricultural chemicals, e.g. fertilizers and pesticides. The most severe soil pollution issues are concentrated in the Absheron Peninsula, a region where petroleum activities are most common. Damaging practices and fossil fuel extraction have rendered 33.3 thousand hectares useless (Bayramli 2020). In some areas, the destruction of the soil extends three meters below ground (Bayramli 2020).

Many of the current issues in terms of soil health stem from the Soviet period; inherited issues have been much more difficult to tackle. Oil cleaning is expensive and labor-intensive. No cleaning of oil-contaminated areas was carried out in prior decades, leaving virtually no remaining natural ecosystems or soil restoration, negatively affecting current and future agricultural capacities.

Environmental Recovery & Green Growth Strategy

Azerbaijan has made commendable commitments to moving forward with sustainable development, embracing green sector expansion and a transition to a green economy. In accordance with the Paris Agreement of 2016, Azerbaijan has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an amount set in its Nationally Determined Contributions. Under the direction of President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan has adopted a ten-year plan which prioritizes—among other items—a green economic transition: Azerbaijan 2030: National Priorities for Socio-Economic Development. Sarah Michael, World Bank Country Manager for Azerbaijan, has reported that a "global transition towards a low-emissions economic model offers opportunities for Azerbaijan to be globally and regionally competitive. To make the best of it, Azerbaijan needs to focus on decarbonizing and diversifying the economy, bolstering innovation, and natural and human capital development” (World Bank 2022). As with any government’s approach to combating the climate crisis, what truly matters is ensuring such plans and motivated rhetoric translates into tangible action.  

In efforts to limit emissions from motor vehicles, Azerbaijan recently moved to restrict the importation of cars over 10 years old. The removal of older cars from circulation simultaneously encourages national automobile production and the use of hybrid and electric vehicles. Through the integration of trams and high-speed rails, Azerbaijan has the opportunity to make inner and inter-city travel quicker and greener, further reducing the number of private motor vehicles on the roads.

Government and private sector investment in wind and solar energy, waste management, and conscientious land use can also have vastly positive impacts on Azerbaijan’s environment and economy. Renewable energy sources have the potential to be exported / profitable; in fall 2023, Azerbaijan, along with Georgia, Romania, and Hungary, worked to establish the Azerbaijan-EU Corridor project, running green energy through a subsea cable under the Black Sea. Wind energy is perhaps the most suitable in terms of renewable energy forms due to Azerbaijan’s climate, with the Absheron Peninsula being one of the regions with the highest wind energy potential. Standard techniques and new inventions show promise in making oil spill clean-up—whether in the Caspian Sea or on land—more efficient and effective. The use of bacteria to break down petroleum matter in the Caspian and the promise of nanocatalyst and nanoadsorbent technologies remain possible avenues for overall ecological improvement and remedies for past inaction.

Azerbaijan is looking to the future, looking to modernize. A transition to a greener economy is necessary to realize such a future, and really, any future at all. The coming decade will mark critical points, points of no return. In the case where complacency and inaction spell environmental, ecological, and humanitarian crises, commitments to climate goals and COP29 cannot be merely symbolic nor performative.


“Azerbaijan Can Accelerate Its Green Economic Transformation: A World Bank Report Shows How.” World Bank, World Bank Group, 9 Dec. 2022, www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2022/12/08/azerbaijan-can-accelerate-its-green-economic-transformation-a-world-bank-report-shows-how.

“Baku Air Quality Index (AQI): Real-Time Air Pollution.” Baku Air Quality Index (AQI) : Real-Time Air Pollution | Bakı, www.aqi.in/ca/dashboard/azerbaijan/bak%C4%B1/baku#:~:text=The%20current%20PM2.,hrs%20air%20quality%20guidelines%20value. Accessed 3 Mar. 2024.

Bayramli, Gadir. 2020, The Environmental Problems of Azerbaijan and the Search for Solutions.

Elliott, Stuart. “Azerbaijan Expects 2023 Gas Exports to Europe to Top 12 BCM: Deputy Minister.” S&P Global Commodity Insights, S&P Global Commodity Insights, 10 Nov. 2023.

Mammadova, Shakar, and Sadegh Rostamnia. “The Ecogeographical Impact of Air Pollution in the Azerbaijan Cities: Possible Plant/Synthetic-Based Nanomaterial Solutions.” Journal of Nanomaterials, Hindawi, 23 May 2022, www.hindawi.com/journals/jnm/2022/1934554/.

Robson, Doug, and Saul Haslam. “Gas Production in Azerbaijan to Increase by 7% in 2023-2026.” ROGTEC, 13 June 2023, www.rogtecmagazine.com/gas-production-in-azerbaijan-to-increase-by-7-in-2023-2026/.

A passionate and goal-oriented student at Sciences Po Menton and Columbia University, pursuing a dual BA in Economy & Society and Sustainable Development.
More posts by Maia S. Zasler.
A Tale of Oil Rigs and Windmills: Environmental History and Hope in Azerbaijan
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