UN Paris meeting presses ahead with binding plastics treaty — U.S. resists


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Dec 23, 2023

UN Paris meeting presses ahead with binding plastics treaty — U.S. resists

The conclusion of the second session in the international effort to arrive at a

The conclusion of the second session in the international effort to arrive at a global plastics treaty offered some grounds for guarded optimism — and provided some disappointments. In a major step forward, the five-day May-June session in Paris of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) ended with an agreement to write a "zero draft," a first version of an enforceable accord on the global plastics pollution crisis, with that landmark document to be ready for review and discussion at the next meeting, slated for Nov. 13-17 in Nairobi, Kenya.

Of 169 states sending delegates to Paris, 135 agreed that binding international law regulating plastics is needed — but it will take future sessions to write those laws and come up with enforcement mechanisms and develop resources.

Another potential sign of progress: INC agreed that treaty matters can be approved by a two-thirds vote among nations, defeating a plan by Saudi Arabia and other petroleum producing nations that would have given any nation power to veto any rule. However, the door wasn't completely shut to reopening the one nation veto. "I don't believe we’ve seen the last of the delay tactics," acknowledges Erin Simon, head of plastic waste & business for WWF.

While Japan reversed a previous position and agreed just before the Paris meeting to join the 58-nation-strong High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, the United States has not joined nor endorsed efforts to deal with plastic pollution through its entire lifecycle. The coalition set a goal to end plastic pollution by 2040 through international legal controls. Japan's move "was a positive development, but Japan has a lot of work to do to get beyond the recycle-only solution [approach]," says Graham Forbes, global plastics project leader at Greenpeace USA.

The United States is still pushing for a voluntary treaty, with each nation making nonbinding pledges. (A similar policy implemented by the 2015 Paris climate agreement resulted in nations failing to make strong voluntary carbon cut pledges, and then falling short of achieving them.)

"The United States is quickly finding itself far more isolated than it expected to find itself," says Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law. "The United States is producing a strategy focused on dealing with this as a waste issue, as an end of the pipeline pollution problem, rather than recognizing that plastic pollution happens throughout the lifecycle."

Forbes concurs: The U.S. was "really a standout in terms of dragging down global ambition. We found that incredibly disturbing; something we’ll be working on in the USA… We have decades of negotiations in climate change to know that voluntary actions don't work…. The Biden Administration is coming up short in a big way. It is much closer to Saudi Arabia and China than it is to the rest of the developed world."

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department who can't be named under the U.S. ground rules provided Mongabay with a statement, saying "We want everyone to be able to come to the table, and thus we believe the HAC's [High Ambition Coalition's] prescriptive approach risks leaving many countries outside the global agreement, and therefore, in the aggregate, will not raise global ambition in combating plastic pollution. Parties should have the flexibility to make progress as quickly as possible while fostering innovation."

The statement went on to tout the United States "key role in developing compromises to overcome procedural obstacles at INC-2…. We also played a key role in overcoming spurious objections and delay tactics from Russia on elections and organizational matters."

One thing stood out in Paris, says Simon: Plastic-producing nations and the petrochemical industry haven't yet gotten on board. "They still want to recycle their way out of [the crisis, but] "there is a need to reduce the amount of materials we use. We can't just create a waste management system…. Actions by individual nations or companies are not enough to stem the tide."

However, at least "The rules of procedure have been agreed upon; the [plastics treaty] process is moving forward," says Lars Stordal, senior expert, waste & marine litter, at GRID -Arendal, a Norway-based environmental communications non-profit.

The shape the draft treaty document will take in coming months is not yet clear, though Muffett remains optimistic: "There is tremendous work to be done but in terms of the timeline, we can still get there," he says. "We are leaving Paris with a real mandate to put the treaty together,"

The UN's official accounting of the summit concludes: "While the meeting was characterized by procedural scuffles, long delays, and late nights, the spirit of Nairobi prevailed." The March 2022 Nairobi event is where the world's nations first agreed to create a cradle to grave plastics treaty.

However, not everyone was pleased with progress in Paris this June. While nations, industry representatives, NGOs and environmentalists were well-represented at the earlier treaty meetings, "solutionists" were not, states Peter Hjemdahl, cofounder of rePurpose Global and the Innovation Alliance for a Global Plastics Treaty; a coalition of scientists, innovators, philanthropies, and others promoting technological and policy solutions to the plastics crisis.

"We were one of a handful, if not the only representative of the circular economy, who were able to make it to the negotiations" at the first INC meeting in Uruguay last year, he says. The circular economy is a model of production that limits resource extraction, reduces consumption, and aspires toward zero waste. "Not including solutions might produce a piece of text that might sound good on paper, but does not do much good for people on the ground," Hjemdahl adds.

WWF, which calls itself "the world's leading conservation organization," also tries to work cooperatively with business, though has found that approach challenging in the plastics negotiations: "We have always looked to leverage industry's ability to… reach a higher ambition, and hold them accountable," WWF's Simon explains. But "What became very quickly apparent was that they could not deliver on their targets [such as phasing out some chemicals used in plastics production] without policies and a system in place. It was their job to help fund that. They knew it wouldn't happen without collective action on a global scale…. They aren't going to be able to figure this out on their own."

Other issues delegates have yet to substantially address: Who will pay out the hundreds of billions of dollars to implement the policies, practices and enforcement a strong cradle to grave treaty will require.

"There is a desperate need for out-of-the-box thinking," Hjemdahl warns. "It will be many years before financing sees the light of day. It could take five years for the funding to be [available] and another five years before the funds are deployed. Then you are [nearly] at the 2040 deadline [to end plastic pollution]." Fees on plastic producers could help pay for treaty implementation, Muffett suggests.

Another concern expressed by activists: The May-June Paris event took place in too small a venue, the headquarters of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. "Public participation was sharply curtailed, even though hundreds of people invested resources to fly across the world" to attend, Muffett says.

The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), an international environmental justice network, noted that "INC-2 hosted at least 190 industry lobbyists, who used their access and infinite resources to undermine calls for plastic reduction by promoting tech-fixes like chemical recycling, and plastic credits, while, fence-line communities, waste pickers, Indigenous peoples, youth and other members of civil society most impacted by plastic pollution had very limited opportunities to be heard."

"Stakes were very high for the oil and gas industry. Shell, ExxonMobil, the American Chemistry Council were very present. You really felt their influence," Forbes of Greenpeace says.

"The reason for optimism is that all the elements for a successful treaty have been brought forward and are at least on the table. Efforts from the United States and Saudi Arabia to deal with only part of the [plastics] lifecycle have largely failed," Mufffett concludes. "We have seen real energy from a wide [range] of countries concerned with a really ambitious treaty. You see African countries lead the charge that not only does the treaty need to be comprehensive but it needs to consider plastic on the land, not just in the ocean."

Banner Image: An art installation by Saype portraying plastic pollution. Image by UNEP via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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