Towards a global plastics treaty

Environmental multilateralism in a time of growing geopolitical conflict is more important than ever.

Expert comment
Published 15 March 2022 Updated 16 March 2022 3 minute READ

With the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world has shifted into a period of renewed geopolitical conflict. The multilateral system and its institutions – cornerstones of the existing global order – are straining to deal with these rapidly changing circumstances. These are new challenges for global sustainability. Yet, an important element to the solution to this conflict, could also be a green one.

Sustainability as a megatrend

As the invasion of Ukraine was unfolding, the latest UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) met in Nairobi, Kenya, where world leaders agreed a set of resolutions to create a legally binding treaty to stop the global plastic pollution crisis. The resolution ‘End Plastic Pollution: Towards a legally binding instrument’ has been named by the United Nations Environment Programme as the most significant multilateral deal on the environment since the Paris climate accord in 2015. It proves that the multilateral system is still working – for now – even in a time of intensifying geopolitical conflict and deepening fault lines in the global order.

The multilateral system is still working, for now, even in a time of intensifying geopolitical conflict.

What’s more, the agreement demonstrates that international cooperation on sustainability is a megatrend perhaps in contrast to geopolitical competition around the world. The issue of sustainability might not be a priority for most political leaders and business executives in the current geopolitical climate. Yet, governments’ sustainability policies and corporate sustainability efforts can inform a nation’s long-term response to the evolving geopolitical crisis. Furthermore, it unites people from around the world, especially youth, around a common purpose for the future. 

Step change needed

Plastic pollution it is a key issue for the future of the planet. It is a worsening global environmental problem with long-range temporal and spatial impacts, contributing to the triple challenge of climate, biodiversity and pollution. Accumulation of plastic waste in the marine environment has been identified as a potential key component of the planetary boundary threat associated with chemical pollutants.

The resolution is a step change in approaches to tackling global plastic pollution. It has established an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee that will develop the specific content of the new plastic pollution treaty with the aim of completing its work by the end of 2024.

Previous commitments by international brands and the private sector will need to be updated, indicating a shift from increasing recycling rates, to addressing overall production volumes. Indeed, the Global Plastics Commitment under which companies representing 20 per cent of all plastic packaging produced globally, has committed to increasing the recyclability and recycling rates of plastics by 2025. But, though this commitment is still important, it will need to increase its ambition to stay relevant.

Geopolitical tensions are not the only challenge. In the run-up to the UNEA, there have been various lobbying attempts by petrochemical industry groups to water down the scope of the agreement. As governments take tougher measures to scale back fossil fuel production, the fossil industry looks to plastics as a saving grace.

According to the International Energy Agency, the growth in plastics production is set to account for over a third of the growth in oil demand to 2030, and nearly half to 2050. In line with these forecasts, major oil and petrochemical companies are planning to invest an estimated $400 billion into new virgin plastics production capacity by the end of 2026. With the new treaty on the way, the risk of stranded assets of new production facilities has increased significantly.

Shifting focus from waste

The resolution, and the treaty that will follow by 2024, highlight the importance of whole value chain approaches and stakeholder cooperation. The resolution mandates that the final agreement will need to regulate, not just plastic waste collection and recycling, but also the design and production of plastics in order to minimize the pollution caused at every stage of the lifecycle.

Setting targets, controls and timelines for minimizing the production and consumption of virgin plastics will be a sticking point in the negotiations but it is a core issue to create a solid agreement. This puts a potential plastics treaty on fragile footing and large petrochemical producing countries and industries may object to a legally binding treaty with heavy emphasis on earlier steps in the plastic lifecycle.

The final agreement will need to regulate, not just plastic waste collection and recycling, but also the design and production of plastics too.

A shift in multilateral environmental approaches from effect (e.g. global warming, biodiversity loss and pollution), to root cause (e.g. fossil fuels, unsustainable food systems, plastic production and consumption), is in motion but difficult to achieve. For example, addressing the root cause requires bold political leadership to take on vested interests in current production and consumption models.

When the world requires decisive action, multilateral approaches to environmental problems are incremental in nature and must therefore play to their strengths. By gathering world leaders around global problems, multilateral environmental agreements can not only foster global ambition, but they also provide the political meta-structures for concrete action and practical solutions to materialize. In particular, improving transparency along plastics value chains, developing policy solutions and mobilizing finance for common challenges.

The lack of finance for circular plastics solutions is one of the main barriers to solving the plastics pollution crisis. Investments in virgin plastics production still exceeds that of recycled plastics. A finance mechanism is expected to be included in the treaty but, while this mechanism will provide some urgently needed support for developing countries to tackle mismanaged waste and open burning, there must be a significant increase in private financing for higher-value circular plastics opportunities in the value chain.

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Strengthening alliances

The plastics treaty offers promise but, if it is going to change the way we produce and consume plastics, the stakeholders at the UNEA must find workable solutions that empower national governments, investors, businesses and citizens to take action on the national and local level.

We are yet to see the full extent of disruption to the multilateral system as a result of the war on Ukraine but allowing environmental issues to fall by the wayside would be a grave mistake.

Geopolitics foreground national interests while protecting common goods requires global cooperation. While the UNEA resolution shows that multilateral approaches are still effective, there is still a danger these important processes could be derailed. The current conflict in Ukraine threatens the ability to gather everyone around the table. In an increasingly strained world, the plastics treaty, and environmental multilateralism at large, will have to walk a thin line of tackling joint and existential problems while keeping all parties engaged.

We are yet to see the full extent of disruption to the multilateral system as a result of the war on Ukraine. But allowing environmental issues, such as the climate or plastics pollution, to fall by the wayside at this point in time would be a grave mistake. Instead, alliance-building will need to continue to develop practical solutions and steer the planet towards a sustainable future.