A global plastics treaty requires scientific guidance

An ambitious agreement to tackle the threat of plastics pollution requires a solid understanding of its scientific complexities.

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Plastic pollution is a growing threat for human health and all ecosystems. According to the UN Environment Programme about 19–23 million tonnes of plastic waste leaks into aquatic ecosystems every year. Polymers from microplastics have been detected in human blood posing an unknown threat to human health.

In March 2022, at the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2), governments adopted a resolution to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution that would address the full lifecycle of plastics.

From 13–19 November 2023, the third United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) convened in Nairobi to advance a previously published ‘Zero Draft’ towards the development of the international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment.

Complications arising from political divergences regarding the instrument’s scope and ambition, coupled with intricate technical details, hindered the progress of government delegates in advancing their work. The timeframe for concluding negotiations on the legally binding global agreement by the end of 2024 is growing increasingly constrained due to these challenges.  

Plastics politics

A notable development during the INC-3 was the formal announcement of the ‘like-minded’ group, an alliance primarily comprising fossil fuel petrochemical producer countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia, united in their opposition to restrictions on the upstream production of feedstock, the raw materials used to fuel an industrial process.

Fossil fuel producing countries emphasized a preference for addressing the plastic pollution issue through end-of-pipe waste management solutions rather than constraining the initial stages of production. Central to their concerns is the concept of resource sovereignty, asserting the right to exploit and utilize their resources without external restrictions. They argue that the UN lacks the mandate to curtail this right.  

Lobbyists representing the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries had a substantial presence at the negotiation venue in Nairobi.

India also aligned itself with this perspective, contributing to the stance against measures that directly limit the upstream production of feedstock for plastic manufacturing. Together, these nations advocate for alternative strategies and interventions that focus on mitigating plastic pollution downstream, positioning themselves in contrast to approaches that seek to regulate and curtail the production of plastics at the source.

The discussion on regulating fossil fuel production within the plastics treaty mirrors broader dimensions in the climate change context and the upcoming COP28, emphasizing the need to mitigate environmental impacts across interconnected sectors.

Backing these stances are lobbyists representing the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries, whose presence at the negotiation venue in Nairobi was substantial – 143 registered lobbyists from the fossil fuel and chemical sectors were equal to the total delegations from the 70 smallest UN member states engaged in the negotiations.

Chemical and fossil fuel lobbyists outnumbered the 64 representatives from the Pacific Small Island Developing States by more than two to one. Their participation in the negotiations comes at a pivotal juncture as the talks are progressing into a critical phase. This figure reflected a significant 36 per cent increase from previous negotiation sessions that took place in Paris.  

The complex geopolitical dynamics between the United States and China did not factor negatively into the negotiations for the plastics treaty. On the contrary, in the Sunnylands Statement issued on 14 November during the high-level Biden–Xi meeting at the APEC summit, both the US and China declared their commitment to collaborate on an ambitious plastics treaty.

The two nations expressed their shared determination to address and eliminate plastic pollution, pledging to work jointly and in collaboration with other countries to develop an international legally binding instrument focused on this critical environmental issue.

During the Biden–Xi meeting at the APEC summit, both the US and China declared their commitment to collaborate on an ambitious plastics treaty.

Other unresolved differences persist concerning international law and existing multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). Some nations are advocating for limitations on the regulatory scope of the treaty, with producer countries urging reliance on established MEAs like the Stockholm Convention and Basel Convention to oversee the regulation of concerning chemicals and trade.

However, there was a growing consensus among member states that a more ambitious approach is imperative. The current MEAs, including the Stockholm Convention and Basel Convention, are acknowledged to be insufficient in adequately addressing the spectrum of chemicals used in plastics – more than 13,000 chemicals have been identified as associated with plastics and plastic production across a wide range of applications.

The current multilateral environmental agreements are acknowledged to be insufficient in adequately addressing the spectrum of chemicals used in plastics.

Consequently, there is a recognized need for a more comprehensive and robust framework that extends beyond the limitations of existing agreements to effectively tackle the complexities associated with chemicals in plastics.

Key concerns of the Global South

The concerns voiced by developing countries, including the Africa Group and the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) Group, highlight the intricate challenges associated with addressing plastics pollution within the framework of sustainable development. These nations rightly emphasize the necessity of just transition approaches for waste pickers and indigenous communities.

Technical assistance, technology transfer and capacity building are crucial, especially for countries downstream in the plastics value chain. This perspective acknowledges that addressing plastics pollution requires not only the adoption of advanced technologies but also the cultivation of local expertise, the empowerment of informal sectors, and the promotion of inclusive circular economic practices.

Global South nations rightly emphasize the necessity of just transition approaches for waste pickers and indigenous communities.

The call for technology transfer on favourable and concessional terms underscores the need to ensure that developing nations can access and implement new technologies without being burdened by prohibitive costs or detrimental trade conditions. This aligns with the broader SDGs agenda, which seeks to address global challenges while promoting inclusivity and sustainable development.

Furthermore, the mention of the need for ramping up development cooperation and the provision of the necessary resources for national activities to implement actions underscores the collective responsibility of the international community to collaborate in tackling plastics pollution.

International financing cont.

A dedicated fund or international financing programme will be needed to finance enabling activities, capacity-building and technical assistance. Development cooperation can facilitate the exchange of knowledge, resources, and best practices, fostering a collaborative approach across the plastics value chain.

Growing need for independent scientific guidance

Crucially, the INC-3 failed to agree on intersessional work that is urgently needed to make progress on complex technical aspects of the negotiations – this was opposed by Russia and Saudi Arabia in the final hours of the negotiations. Achieving an effective global agreement to tackle plastics pollution will require the incorporation of independent and interest-free scientific inputs.

Independent scientific research provides unbiased and evidence-based insights to identify chemicals and polymers of concern and problematic plastics products to be regulated under the treaty, and to provide a comprehensive understanding on the appropriate solutions and financial instruments that is essential for informed decision-making.

In the absence of independent scientific inputs, there is a risk of policy decisions being influenced by vested interests or short-term economic considerations.

An enhanced science-policy interface will be imperative to bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and the negotiation process. Policymakers and negotiators need access to the best available scientific inputs to formulate effective strategies to address the global plastics crisis. Furthermore, a robust science-policy interface fosters transparency and accountability in the decision-making process, instilling public confidence in the adopted measures and the multilateral system.

In the absence of independent scientific inputs, there is a risk of policy decisions being influenced by vested interests or short-term economic considerations. This not only undermines the credibility of the multilateral process, but potentially compromises the long-term success of global efforts to combat plastics pollution.

By prioritizing an enhanced science-policy interface, the international community can ensure that the design of the treaty is grounded in a solid understanding of the scientific complexities surrounding plastics pollution, paving the way for an ambitious and legally binding global agreement.