- In March 2022, the world’s nations met to launch negotiations for a global plastic treaty with the goal of achieving final treaty language by 2025. That effort came as the planet drowns in a tidal wave of plastic waste, polluting oceans, air and land.
- That treaty goal and deadline may have been put at risk this month as the United Nations Environment Programme’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC) met in Nairobi, Kenya for its third session.
- There, three of the world’s biggest petrostates — Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran — began obstructing the process in an attempt to stall the negotiations, according to environmental NGOs that attended the meeting. More than 140 lobbyists at the November conference represented the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries.
- While a coalition of more than 60 high-ambition nations is seeking a binding international treaty that regulates cradle-to-grave plastics production, the resisters argued for treaty language that would focus on recycling rather than production, would not regulate plastic toxins and would allow nations to set individual goals for plastics regulation.
The third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC) ended on Nov. 19 in deep disappointment for many environmentalists. A few petrochemical-producing countries and corporations obstructed the plastic treaty proceedings, which wound up focusing on arguments and procedure instead of substance.
INC is charged with hammering out a worldwide treaty on plastic pollution by 2025. Delegates from 161 countries and 318 “observer organizations” attended this month’s session in Nairobi, Kenya. Polluters were especially well represented. The Center for International Environmental Law counted 143 lobbyists, some on official rosters of nations, who work for the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries, a 36% increase over the last session. (The figure includes those representing trade associations and other organizations funded by the industries.)
The session started with a “zero draft” in place, which negotiators hoped to advance and fine-tune, while beginning discussions on measures to greatly reduce plastic pollution. But the meeting ended with a far longer “revised zero draft,” with no clear forward-looking agenda, but the expressed hope of developing a first draft at the forthcoming fourth session in Ottawa in April.
“The zero-draft treaty evolves into a lengthy document, potentially seen as a waste of time from a different perspective,” read an announcement critical of this month’s negotiations from GRID-Arendal, an environmental communications group based in Norway.
While most countries wanted to further define the treaty’s provisions, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran blocked progress with parliamentary delays, focusing on process rather than substance, environmentalists attending the proceedings reported. These countries’ economies depend on fossil fuel, petrochemical and plastic production, and argued for an agreement that focuses on recycling waste, rather than a binding international treaty with cradle-to-grave regulation.
“Obviously, there are a number of countries who rely heavily on oil and gas production, and their delegates showed a lack of respect for the majority of countries who want a legally binding agreement, says Erin Simon, vice president and head of plastic waste and business at WWF-US, upon returning from Nairobi.
“You had Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran constantly taking the floor to complain and say they were not being heard over and over and over again, and you didn’t have enough other voices to say it was time to stop,” Simon reports. Similar delaying and derailing tactics were used with considerable success to significantly weaken the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and to de-tooth the deeply flawed 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Russia issued statements at Nairobi trying to limit the reach of the plastics treaty, especially eliminating bans on plastic toxins. “The general position of the Russian Federation is that substances of concern, posing threat to environment and human health, shall not be part of the future Instrument, because they are already regulated by the BRS Conventions (Basel/Rotterdam/Stockholm agreements controlling hazardous waste),” Russia’s representatives wrote.
However, the ratified BRS Conventions were principally designed to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between nations and to protect human health and the environment from just a dozen persistent organic pollutants, not to control plastic production or toxic plastic pollution.
Russia also tried to limit the scope of the evolving agreement, arguing against petrochemical regulation. Russia wrote that the “future Instrument shall not apply to the following substances: — raw materials, such as hydrocarbons and their derivatives, — intermediate products, such as virgin polymers, which have to be further processed for serving end uses, — any dual-use items” and that “primary polymers must not be discussed within the INC process and shall not be part of the future Instrument.”
While many nations think otherwise and want strong plastic production regulation, the U.N. process is one of consensus, and even just one nation’s objection can kill any provision. Russia was “just completely out of step with even some of the other stalling countries who at times were saying something productive,” Simon notes.
She adds that the Saudi delegation emphasized the right of nations to make their own regulations, rather than being dictated to by binding treaty provisions. To back its contention, they cited the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment & Development giving nations “the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies …” But the Saudis left out the second half of that statement, which says that a nation’s activities must not “cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.” Today, much of the plastic pollution washing up on Pacific island shores in the developing world originates in the world’s biggest oil-producing nations, including Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The High Ambition Coalition, an alliance of more than 60 nations dedicated to ending plastic pollution that have been pushing for a strong binding treaty, didn’t try to stop the obstructionist nations from inflicting their procedural delays. “It is my hope countries come prepared next time. They should have been prepared this time and they were not,” Simon states.
Douglas McCauley, a professor of ecology, evolution and marine biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, notes that several practical paths already exist to end the global threats posed by plastic pollution. But the world lacks the political will, he says. Countries “literally profit from every day that this problem is not fixed,” he says.
“There has been massive lobbying by petrochemical groups. They are all there paying attention,” says Kaitlyn Trent, senior oceans campaigner for Greenpeace USA. “Countries listen to people with loud voices.”
On the bright side, however, Greenpeace says the United States, which has shown signs of resistance in the past, is moving in the right direction, though it hasn’t embraced the high ambition agenda or joined the high ambition coalition.
“We’ve seen [the U.S. delegation] become more vocal in terms of supporting human health,” Trent notes, though the Biden administration position remains “pretty vague.”
The United States says “it supports certain obligations applied on a global level, but we don’t know which ones,” Trent adds. “But it’s a big shift from previous [U.S. positions]. Before, they were saying they support only national action plans” instead of a binding international agreement. It seems evident that the United States — one of the world’s biggest oil and plastics producers — will need to step into a strong leadership position in future negotiations if there is to be viable pushback against the obstructionist states.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) put a positive face on November’s proceedings, issuing a release at its end heralding “agreement on a starting point for negotiations at the fourth session.” The next draft will include views of all members, the prepared statement read.
Outgoing UNEP INC chair and Peruvian diplomat Gustavo Adolfo Meza-Cuadra Velasquez says the meeting marked “a significant step forward towards the achievement of our objective to develop an international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution. But it has also recalled [for] us that much remains to be done both in narrowing down our differences and in developing technical work to inform our negotiations.”
Banner image: Throwaway single-use plastic trash at a festival in Germany. The world is awash in plastic waste, which can now be found in every ocean, on every continent, in clouds, contaminating wildlife including phytoplankton and inside the human body. The environmental and health impacts of plastics are not fully understood at present. Image by Kritzolina via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
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