India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) and a mass of plastic trash in a water body surrounded by fish. Photos: Reuters and Naja Bertolt Jensen/Unsplash
- Next month, diplomats from around the world will begin the first negotiations over the scope and aspirations of the so-called international plastics treaty.
- This will be the first of five meetings to be hosted under the aegis of the UN Environment Assembly between 2022 and 2024, following up from its March 2022 resolution.
- The biggest challenge for negotiators is to produce an ambitious treaty that doesn’t shy away from addressing the root cause of the plastics crisis: overproduction.
- The idea of a global treaty on plastic pollution was perhaps set into motion after India’s call for a global ban on single-use plastics in 2019.
- The US has departed from a high-ambition plan to one with lower ambitions based on ‘national action plans’ over a legally binding instrument, and is seeking allies.
Next month will mark the beginning of a lengthy but important milestone in the global effort to end plastic pollution. Diplomats from around the world, representing the Intergovernmental Negotiations Committee (INC), will begin the first talks over the scope and aspirations of the so-called plastics treaty. This will be the first of five such meetings to be hosted under the aegis of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) between 2022 and 2024.
The UNEA resolution adopted in March 2022 set the ball rolling on negotiations for a new “legally binding instrument” to end plastic pollution. The INC was charged with delivering the final treaty’s text by the end of 2024. Countries that wish to help end the plastic pollution crisis could then ratify the treaty. If negotiations stay on track, the plastics treaty will become a globally governing instrument on the issue of plastic pollution.
With that goal in mind, the biggest challenge for the negotiators is to produce an ambitious and bold treaty that doesn’t shy away from addressing the root cause of the plastics crisis: overproduction.
India has remained unequivocal in its commitment to ending the scourge of plastic pollution, starting from its ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ mission. In fact, the idea of a global treaty on plastic pollution was perhaps set into motion after India’s clarion call for a global ban on single-use plastics at the UNEA 4 in 2019.
But as the process has evolved, political alliances have emerged to replace the homogenous opposition to plastics. As expected, a version of the economics versus environment debate has divided countries: it’s “those seeking a systemic change and a revaluation of business-as-usual” v. “those seeking band-aid interventions”.
A high-ambition coalition
On August 22, 2022, a group of 25 countries led by the Republic of Rwanda and the Kingdom of Norway forged a high-ambition coalition (HAC). The extended context of the HAC matters to our discussion. The HAC currently has 25 members: Rwanda, Norway, Canada, Peru, Germany, Senegal, Georgia, Republic of Korea, the UK, Switzerland, Portugal, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Costa Rica, Iceland, Ecuador, France and the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Ghana, Monaco, Slovenia and the UAE.
According to the HAC’s concept note, it is committed to ending plastic pollution by developing an ambitious international “legally binding” instrument based on a comprehensive and “circular approach” that ensures urgent action and effective interventions along the “full lifecycle” of plastics. The “high ambition” of the coalition is to achieve a world free of plastic pollution by 2040, using these three strategies.
The origin of these three terms can be traced to the UNEA 5.2 Resolution, entitled ‘End Plastic Pollution: Towards a legally binding instrument’, passed on March 2, 2022, in Nairobi with the endorsement of 175 countries, including India. It was the first step to the treaty that will be finalised over the five Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee (INC) meetings between 2022 and 2024.
The “legally binding” nature of the prospective treaty expected out of the INC process has the chance to be a potent instrument – that is, if negotiations remain on track and all countries stay committed to the spirit of high ambition as envisaged by the UNEA. But Reuters reported that a split has already emerged under the leadership of the US, which is unhappy with the HAC’s aspirations.
What does this mean for the future of the treaty and the aspiration for a world without plastic pollutants? To answer that, we need to understand the parameters of success that the HAC has set out. According to the HAC concept note, there are seven key requirements for a successful treaty (quoted verbatim):
1. Eliminate problematic plastics, including by bans and restrictions
2. Develop global sustainability criteria and standards for plastic production
3. Set global baselines and targets for sustainability throughout the lifecycle of plastics
4. Ensure transparency in the value chain of plastics, including for material and chemical composition
5. Establish mechanisms for strengthening commitments, targets and controls over time
6. Implement monitoring and reporting at each stage through the lifecycle of plastics
7. Facilitate effective technical and financial assistance, scientific and socio-economic assessments
Together, these deliverables are needed to eliminate or ban problematic plastics and open up the petrochemical and plastics industries to greater scrutiny and to have them be more transparent about their production, marketing and waste management practices.
Doing so will ensure that corporations, governments and the people stop thinking of waste plastic as a post-consumer issue that can be solved with landfills and incineration – and think about its lifecycle impact starting from production and lasting until complete destruction.
Effecting this calls in turn for a deeper environmental and health assessment of more than 10,000 compounds that the plastics industry uses today, in order to regulate their use in manufacturing and reduce their carbon footprints.
Remember that plastic is oil. So plastics are expected to offer a lease of life for the oil and gas sector, whose consumption is currently following a downward trend due to climate concerns and a shift to renewable power.
The global carbon footprint of plastic has doubled since 1995 and currently accounts for 4.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. If plastic production and use keep growing as they are now, their emissions could reach 1.34 billion tonnes a year by 2030 – equivalent to the emissions of more than 295 new 500-MW coal-fired power plants.
Yet, in the face of what we stand to gain, the ‘low-ambition’ coalition that the US is trying to stitch together plans to replicate the Paris Agreement model, with an emphasis on national action plans. In this model, countries will be able to set their own targets to reduce plastic production and consumption, without any accountability mechanism for missed deadlines.
In other words, the Paris Agreement has no legal teeth – in that it doesn’t impose uniform standards or reductions and allows each country to name its own goals. So it explicitly embraces low-ambition plans. It also makes transparency and accountability more difficult because countries define their goals in different ways.
Where is India standing?
The HAC offers a compelling opportunity for India to participate in a process that promises to set the narrative for a good future treaty. India has been a solo player thus far – but given its international position on the issue of plastic pollution, it should create a place for itself in the HAC, bearing in mind that it would be out of place in any other coalition.
Despite current efforts, our oceans are expected to be home to 75-199 million tonnes of plastic trash. Unless we change how we produce, use and dispose of plastics, the amount of plastic waste entering aquatic ecosystems worldwide could nearly triple, from 9-14 million tonnes a year in 2016 to 23-37 million tonnes a year by 2040.
The crisis is quite like a patient in critical care urgently in need of surgery: any low-ambition strategies will be akin to offering a band-aid. Equally importantly, since the need for surgery is clear, countries – including India – must go through with it as carefully as possible.
Dharmesh Shah is the senior technical advisor with Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE).