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Plastics treaty negotiatons fail to learn from Paris Agreement

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By John Leo Algo

· 5 min read

The outcomes of the recent round of negotiations on a global plastics treaty (INC-4) resulted in disappointment among many Parties and observers. These stakeholders claim that not enough progress was achieved in the talks in Ottawa, Canada to produce a workable goal to end plastic pollution by 2040.

Such an instrument should help address one of the three issues comprising the “triple planetary crisis”, with the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework dealing with biodiversity and ecosystems loss and the Paris Agreement focusing on the climate crisis.  

Yet even with the difficulties in implementing the 2015 climate accord well-documented, it appears that the global plastics treaty is headed for potential failure before it is even finalized.

Déjà vu

In the global environmental policy regime, the fate of fossil fuels and plastics are practically intertwined. The latter cannot be produced without oil and natural gas, which contributes more than 3% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In an era when global temperatures are increasing and microplastics are becoming present almost anywhere, every measure of reduction counts.

Arguably the most important call a plastics treaty must include is drastically reducing the production of said material through setting binding targets and timelines. Like the climate imperative of lowering the use of fossil fuels, the most effective way to address this issue is to mitigate, to directly address the source of pollution. This should include the extraction and refining of raw materials needed to produce said material.

Yet what transpired at INC-4 shows that many of the factors that prevent this call from already reaching a decision. Countries have yet to agree on the treaty’s scope or its substantive elements, due to the actions of nations playing familiar roles based on their positions and throughout the climate negotiations.

For example, the United States continues its strategy of avoiding strong accountability by not proposing binding targets and instead shifting the focus to curbing demand instead of supply. This is consistent with its call during the first INC for the plastics treaty to resemble the Paris Agreement, which it actually left for a few months in 2020-2021.  

Countries like China, India, and Saudi Arabia are also blocking any measures pertaining to lowering production, given that they are among those with the highest percentage of global revenue from the petrochemical industry. They are joined by oil-dependent nations such as Russia, Kuwait, and Qatar in wanting the treaty to largely focus on waste management.

Another notable detail from INC-4 is the increased presence of fossil fuel and petrochemical lobbyists. A total of 196 lobbyists were registered for the meeting, a 37% increase from INC-3. They also outnumber the number of attendees from the entire European Union or the combined total from the smallest 87 country-delegations. 

This is reminiscent of the fossil fuel industry’s presence at the most recent climate talks in Dubai, where they collectively outnumbered all Party-delegations except for Brazil and the host country UAE. In both cases, their influence on both negotiations was evident, resulting in outcomes that are far from what is needed to address their respective focused global crisis.

While the polluting businesses are allowed to slow down the progress of the treaty development, the most vulnerable groups are either ignored or not given the proper support regarding their participation. For example, indigenous peoples’ representatives were outnumbered seven-to-one by the entire delegation of fossil fuel and petrochemical lobbyists. 

Cases of their lands becoming damaged due to the actions of fossil fuel companies are becoming more commonplace. Yet it is clear that some countries are choosing to listen to profit-first interests over the voices of victims of the industries’ pollution, whether in the plastics or climate negotiations. 

Breaking free

What these comparisons show us is that the same geopolitical contexts and sectoral interests that hinder global climate action are affecting the progress of formulating the agreement to end plastic pollution.  

The next meeting in Busan, South Korea marks the last round of negotiations before the treaty is expected to be finalized. If the current trends that hinder its development continue, expect the resulting accord to be disappointing. 

Yet the road to the final INC is still open for stakeholders to navigate. A formal intersessional meeting will be conducted before the summit in Busan, with setting lists of harmful and avoidable plastic products and analyzing the needed finance for implementation as part of its agenda. The inclusion issue remains a problem, with current limitations on observer participation placed for this work.

Meanwhile, a coalition of countries and non-government groups have jointly called for managing production levels to be aligned with the Paris Agreement and a circular economy, and ensure transparency in the production process. 

It is clear what the global plastics treaty must be, regardless of the tactics of a few nations or the big businesses. Among the non-negotiables, it must address all stages of the life cycle, including binding reductions in production. It needs to be science-based, especially regarding the strategies for phasing out or phasing down specific chemicals and products. 

The resulting treaty has to contain the following principles that are also reflected in the Paris Agreement: equity, just transition, and common but differentiated responsibilities. It must also uphold inclusivity, transparency, and accountability for duty-bearers throughout its eventual implementation. 

There is a difference between industries participating in the decision-making process as part of just transition and lobbyists willing to compromise global sustainability and well-being, which would ultimately negatively affect them as well. With this context, these fossil fuel and petrochemical industries should not be allowed to partake in INC-5 and subsequent meetings.

The negotiators involved with the development of the global plastics treaty have the opportunity to avoid repeating the same mistakes that have been seen with the Paris Agreement. Much like climate change, there is no value of profits that can ultimately withstand a planet scorned with plastic pollution.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

John Leo Algo is the National Coordinator of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas, the Philippines's largest civil society network for climate action. He is also a member of the Youth Advisory Group for Environmental and Climate Justice, anchored in YECAP under agencies of the United Nations. He has been a climate and environment journalist since 2016.

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