Environmental advocates criticized the outcome of the weeklong United Nations-led meeting on plastic pollution, saying oil-producing countries successfully employed stalling tactics designed to weaken the agreement.
The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for Plastics is mandated with creating the first international, legally binding treaty on plastic pollution in five rounds of negotiations.
At this third round of talks, delegates were expected to discuss a draft published in September that represented the views from the first two meetings and narrow down options.
Member states decided to move forward with a revision of the draft, which has become longer due to new proposals during this round and will be even more difficult to advance, participants said. States also failed to reach a consensus on intersessional work to discuss crucial parts of the draft ahead of the fourth round of negotiations.
But at the close of the session, outgoing negotiation chair Gustavo Adolfo Meza-Cuadra Velasquez described the round as “a significant step forward.” He noted, however, that “much remains to be done both in narrowing down our differences and in developing technical work to inform our negotiations.”
Throughout the week, delegates suggested options to strengthen proposed global rules across the entire lifecycle of plastic from production to disposal. A coalition of “high-ambition” governments led by Rwanda and Norway hope to eradicate plastic pollution by 2040 by having a treaty that guarantees interventions throughout the whole life cycle of plastics, including reducing output and restricting some chemicals used in the plastics industry.
But some oil-producing countries advocated for shifting previously agreed mandates of the agreement, like changing the focus from the entire lifecycle of plastic to waste management, and having voluntary measures at national levels to fight plastic pollution, instead of global measures.
“The science is very clear, the data is very clear, and the moral imperative is very clear,” said Graham Forbes, global plastics campaign lead at Greenpeace. “You cannot solve the plastic pollution crisis if you do not massively cut plastic production.”
Ana Le Rocha, director of the global plastics program at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, said “the bullies of the negotiations pushed their way through, despite the majority countries, with leadership from the African Bloc and other nations in the Global South, in support of an ambitious treaty.”
But Stewart Harris, a spokesperson of the International Council of Chemical Associations, sees an opportunity for the treaty to accelerate circularity, or the reuse of plastics. He hoped the agreement will set up “something like a requirement for governments to establish circularity targets as part of their national action plans.”
The world produces more than 430 million tons of plastic annually, and two thirds of that are products that are disposed of soon after use, becoming waste and, often getting into the human food chain, according to the United Nations. Global plastic waste is expected to nearly triple by 2060, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Plastics are often made from oil, or other planet-warming fossil fuels.
More than 1,900 participants from 161 countries, including government officials, representatives of intergovernmental organizations, and civil society members, took part in the talks. A total of 143 lobbyists registered for the negotiations, according to an analysis by the Center for International Environmental Law.
Tadesse Amera, co-chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network, worried that lobbyists could “divert science from independent science to industry-based science” and “prevent the treaty from protecting human health in the environment.”
This week’s talks were the third of five rounds. The next talks will take place in Ottawa, Canada in April 2024. Delegates have until the end of 2024 to produce a final draft.
Jacob Kean-Hammerson, an ocean campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, described the remaining path to create the treaty as “treacherous.”
“These negotiations ended with more questions than answers about how we can bridge the political divide and craft a treaty that stimulates positive change,” he said.
Forbes, who led Greenpeace’s delegation at the talks, said the stakes will be higher in the coming negotiation rounds.
“We are charging towards catastrophe,” he said. “We have one year to turn this around, and to ensure that we are celebrating our collective success instead of dooming ourselves to a dark and dangerous future.”