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Discussions conclude in Ottawa to agree on a treaty to counter plastic pollution

5 May 2024

Discussions conclude in Ottawa to agree on a treaty to counter plastic pollution

What is happening in Canada?

Member states, negotiators and private sector representatives met last week at a summit in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, to write and agree to a plastic pollution treaty. In 2022, member states of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) voted to make a legally binding treaty on plastic pollution by the end of 2024. This marks the fourth out of five meetings by a negotiating committee to write this treaty, and this meeting is the most notable so far, following the production of a draft text.

Annual plastic pollution has doubled in the past two decades, currently at a rate of 460 million tonnes per year, with this rate on pace to potentially triple by 2050. According to UNEP, less than 10% of the cumulative plastic waste has been recycled, with much of it being dumped and burned. There is an estimated $80 billion loss in value from plastic waste in the production process alone. Plastic waste is also directly linked to fossil fuels, with 98% of single-use plastic being produced with “virgin feedstock”, a direct by-product of crude oil used in the production process for oil and natural gas. 

The talks in Ottawa were said to mark a “massive, monumental change” in the energy of discussions, according to Canadian parliamentary secretary Julie Dabrusin. Specifically, there has been a lot of work at this summit to move from objectives set out in earlier summits to language that can be a part of an international treaty while also achieving significant progress on incorporating proposals around recyclable plastics and better managing plastic waste. There has been work to reduce pollution across the entire plastic life cycle, including in the extraction of fossil fuels and the disposal of plastic waste, building on past UN work, which has primarily focused on the disposal stage. 

The most contentious part of discussions has centred around a commitment to reducing plastic production. Rwanda and Peru led the most ambitious proposal, which would have set a target to reduce primary plastic production by 40% by 2040. However, this proposal was rejected. While this is still unclear in the treaty, regional or multilateral groups such as the G7 could commit to their plastic production target. 

In the aftermath of these discussions, some have been disappointed by the lack of agreement on a concrete proposal to reduce plastic production. Graham Forbes, the global plastics projects leader at Greenpeace, said that while it was an “important first step,” the treaty's success would depend entirely on how “it addresses and reduces plastic production.” 

There have also been concerns about the impact lobbyists have had on discussions. According to the Centre for International Environmental Law, the number of lobbyists from the petrochemical and plastic industries has increased significantly since the last summit in Nairobi in November, with these lobbyists now outnumbering both delegates from the EU and scientists attending the summit. Many have advocated for “circularity” and emphasise recycling and reuse rather than production limits. According to Bethanie Carney Almroth, an ecotoxicology professor at the University of Gothenburg, there had been cases at this summit of scientists being intimidated and harassed by lobbyists at meetings. 

Almroth also noted that there had been concerns about misinformation at the summit. She said that at a meeting during the summit, someone claimed that there was no reliable data on microplastics, which she stated was “verifiably false” due to the 21,000 publications on their effects on our health.

What is in it for you?

For our readers, this treaty's impact on reducing emissions could be vital to achieving global climate targets. With plastic pollution in the ocean expected to triple by 2040, a more evident international consensus on this could reduce the impact of pollution on marine life. Therefore, stringent proposals on what can be done with plastics at the end of their life cycle could preserve marine biodiversity in critical parts of the world, such as Australia and the Pacific. 

Furthermore, these efforts could also help drive down carbon emissions. According to the Lawrence Berkley National Lab in the US, if current progress towards the 1.5C target continues, plastic pollution could account for up to 31% of global carbon emissions by 2050. Therefore, more policies discouraging the burning of plastics and promoting better production practices could significantly contribute to emission reduction – helping to reduce global warming while also improving health outcomes by lowering air pollution. 

For US readers, the Biden administration faced a complex dilemma in its involvement at the summit, which will be relevant to November’s upcoming elections. While the US delegation generally favoured more robust measures on plastic production, they did not want to commit to UN-mandated targets. Instead, they supported measures to see member states set their targets. This proposal by the US could help signal President Biden’s ambitions towards climate policy, potentially viewed as an attempt to gain support from moderate voters. However, this has led to criticism from some at the summit, who are calling for the US to “own their failure” as being one of the largest producers of oil, gas and plastic and take a leading role in the measures to address these issues.

What happens next?

The next summit will be taking place in November in Busan, South Korea, where member states will vote on the final text of the proposed treaty. There are scheduled to be consultations on a national and regional level before the summit in Busan, which could help to clarify some disputed aspects of the treaty. If it passes, it will then have to be ratified by countries to come into force, meaning that they will have to agree to its terms and incorporate it into their national legislation.

Regional and global blocs such as the G7 have indicated that they may be willing to take greater action to address problems in plastic production. The French Minister for the Environment stated that the G7 “aspired” to make a commitment to reduce its own plastic production in the near future after a meeting last week in Turin. Therefore, this could spur a trend of other blocs making commitments on plastic production even if the final UN treaty does not include ambitious proposals on it.

The Polis Team in London

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