Plastics treaty’s penultimate talks: five takeaways

After INC-4, only one meeting is left for the world to reach a consensus on a treaty to limit plastics pollution. With festering disagreements surrounding a cap on plastic production, success is far from assured.

Drainage channel filled with trash
A drainage channel filled with plastic trash. Image: Ivan RadicCC BY 2.0, via Flickr

A world-first agreement to limit plastic pollution is meant to be completed this year.

In theory, this could trigger major changes in many people’s everyday lives, reducing the huge amounts of plastic packaging that are unpeeled and disposed of every day; unclogging rivers and seas; and reducing harms to human health.

In the past two years, 15 million tonnes of plastic have entered the ocean. In 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) adopted a resolution to develop a globally binding treaty that would reduce the problem via five meetings: “international negotiating committees”, or INCs.

In April, 170 countries met in Ottawa, Canada, to attend the fourth meeting. But festering disagreements flared up again, particularly on whether the treaty should include a global cap on plastic production. Hopes for a deal now depend on with December’s final INC, to be hosted in Busan, Korea.

Here are five key takeaways from Ottawa: 

1. Scientists pile pressure on plastics

Before the meeting even started, scientists were already busy highlighting the connection between plastic production and pollution.

study by the US-based Moore Institute for Plastic Pollution Research, published just after INC-4 began, reports that each percentage increase in plastic production by a company is matched by an equivalent percentage increase in detected environmental pollution of their branded plastic products. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory also published a report that coincided with the talks. It says projected increases in plastic production will likely consume between 21 per cent and 26 per cent of the world’s remaining carbon budget for keeping the average global temperature rise below 1.5°C, because most plastics are made using fossil fuels.

“Plastic is actually a cross-cutting issue, because it has effects on climate, biodiversity and obviously on pollution. So the importance of this being regulated, and the treaty actually being successful, is very high.” That is according to Ana Rocha, director of the global plastics programme at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

These latest studies join a growing body of research exploring the human health impacts of plastic, which occur through both pollution at source (where materials used to make plastics are extracted and manufactured) and through plastics in the environment. The scale and complexity of the problem is huge: another recent report found that plastics contain 16,000 different chemicals.

2. Indigenous groups highlight plastics impacts

Three days after INC-4 began, a state of emergency was declared in the Canadian town of Sarnia. Benzene, a chemical used to make raw materials for plastic, had been detected leaking from a facility producing chemicals for plastics by the Aamjiwnaang First Nation community. Its citizens live alongside the facility and some were falling sick. (The wider region is known as “Chemical Alley” for its high concentration of more than 60 petrochemical facilities.)

Janelle Nahmabin, an elected councillor of Aamjiwnaang, says her children struggled with breathing and dizziness after the leak and her sister was taken to hospital: “I could go through every house along my street and tell you how their family members were impacted.”

During the negotiations, her community’s battle with pollution became a rallying cry for those pushing for recognition of the direct impacts of plastic production. Nahmabin attended INC-4 as part of the Indigenous People’s Caucus, joining representatives of native communities from Canada, the United States and New Zealand who live near oil refineries and petrochemical plants. They want the treaty to lay out measures to tackle pollution across plastic’s entire life cycle. “To be able to stand with these folks who are greatly impacted … was so symbolic of the missing piece in the negotiations,” she says.

3. Industry presence intensifies

Also present at the talks were almost 200 fossil fuel and chemical industry representatives. That was a 37 per cent increase on INC-3, according to analysis by the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL). Several industry-hosted events held on the side of official negotiations touted plastic’s benefits, and plastic adverts were widespread at Ottawa airport and venues surrounding the conference centre where negotiations took place.

As demand for oil- and gas-based fuels declines, research shows that fossil fuel industries are expanding into petrochemicals. At the treaty talks, “the reality is that we are negotiating the future of fossil fuels,” says Daniela Duran Gonzalez, a senior legal campaigner for CIEL. The organisation wants conflict-of-interest rules at future meetings, under which attendees could be forced to publicly disclose corporate connections, and lobbyists could be excluded from policymaking spaces.

4. Production the problem as [brackets] proliferate

By the end of the Canada meeting, large sections of the draft treaty text remained locked inside brackets, indicating disagreement over what the text says, or whether that text should be there at all. In some sections, only a handful of words remained outside brackets. Key among these disputed sections is wording relating to a potential global cut in plastic production.

By the end of INC-4, some negotiators had labelled current plastic production levels as the “elephant in the room“. Efforts for and against a cap set the tone for conversations in the negotiating halls, at side events, and in the streets surrounding the meeting. But it proved so controversial that the topic was not even included in the schedule for “intersessional work”, during which groups of countries will together discuss predetermined topics before INC-5 in Korea.

Over 50 countries supported a proposal to include plastic production in the intersessional work. These included many Pacific small-island developing states and Global South countries, which are disproportionately affected by plastic waste. Dialogue Earth spoke to Christina Dixon, lead ocean campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency: “I think it was a disappointment for many delegations, especially because their work request was basically to get a report about production volumes, to inform the discussions about what sustainable levels of production could look like.”

Many campaigners are now pinning their hopes on two documents that were released during INC-4. The first is a declaration called Bridge to Busan, which urges delegates to keep goals for sustainable plastic production in the treaty and has been signed by 33 countries. The second is a global target set by Rwanda and Peru to cut plastic production by 40 per cent.

“Some people, some sectors believe that we can handle the plastic problem on the downstream end [through disposal and recycling],” says Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, who headed up INC-4’s Peruvian delegation and chaired the negotiations at INC-2. His counter-argument is that the UNEA resolution which created this treaty process refers to the whole chain of plastic production. Therefore, cutting plastic production should stay on the negotiating table.

5. Time to abandon consensus?

Though there are officially seven days left in Korea to negotiate and write a treaty, the text that will be discussed is littered with over 3,000 brackets.

Under the treaty process, there are usually two ways to make decisions and resolve areas of disagreement: by consensus, or, if consensus cannot be reached, by a vote. But at INC-2, a small group of countries reopened a discussion on these rules, and ultimately objected to voting as a fallback option, arguing that consensus was the only way.

This means one country could veto something in the text that everyone else wants, such as a production cap. While consensus usually plays an important role in international agreements, in this case, a few countries that do not back production caps and other limits are using it in bad faith to lower the treaty’s ambition. That is according to David Azoulay, the director of CIEL’s environmental health programme. He did not name these countries, citing the private nature of the discussions. But in public statements made during the talks, nations including Russia and Iran openly expressed opposition to a cap.

“Is it possible to have a treaty that fulfils the mandate and that is fit for purpose, without voting? My sense is absolutely not – because a number of countries are interested in the exact opposite, and they’re the ones who are currently holding the process hostage, to some extent,” Azoulay says.

With just seven days left to organise the text, he is not positive that negotiations in Korea will end with a finished treaty. In that case, countries may call for an extra negotiating session: INC-6. More time could be a good thing, but Azoulay worries that some countries may use this to continue campaigning for a weaker treaty.

An alternative is for countries that want a strong treaty to push ahead with it, even if that risks other nations not ratifying the final text. Recently, the Group of Seven nations, which includes the US and UK, committed to reducing overall production of plastic. Campaigners hope such displays of support from beyond the negotiations will help cap-friendly countries stand their ground.

This article was originally published on Dialogue Earth under the Creative Commons BY NC ND licence.

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