INC-2: a session for nothing?

Why is it so difficult to reach an international treaty on plastic pollution?

Why is it so difficult to reach an international treaty on plastic pollution?

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A new phase of the international treaty to end plastic pollution negotiations took place in Paris, at UNESCO headquarters, from May 29 to June 2, 2023.

Plastic has become one of the most significant sources of water and soil pollution.

According to the latest OECD figures, 460 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced every year.  This figure has doubled since 2000 and is set to triple by 2060. 

Although several countries have taken measures to deal with plastic waste, such as the European Union with its Directive on single-use plastic in 2019, or Rwanda in 2008, which was the first country in the world to ban plastic bags, 75% of the plastic waste found in the oceans comes from poor waste management. Indeed, most countries do not have the infrastructure to manage their own plastic waste. 

Others, like Japan, export over 90% of their plastic waste to developing countries that have no means of recycling it. Plastic waste is at best burnt, at worst abandoned in the wild, creating huge open-air dumps. China produces 32% of the world’s plastic, a leap of 82% in ten years. What’s more, 10% of the world’s plastic is emitted by soda giants Coca and Pepsi

Finally, the treaty is also part of the drive to move away from fossil fuels, as plastic is a direct derivative of petroleum.

Why is it so difficult to reach an international treaty on plastic pollution?

The Fifth United Nations Environment Assembly adopted a landmark resolution in Nairobi, Kenya, in March 2022 with a view to negotiating a legally binding global treaty to combat plastic pollution by the end of 2024. It will be based on a comprehensive approach covering the entire life cycle of plastics. To achieve this, five working sessions are planned, the first of which was held in Uruguay in November 2022. This first session laid the groundwork for future discussions by identifying the expectations and ambitions of the main delegations, with France hosting the second negotiating session.

An urgent treaty, yet negotiated at a snail’s pace

The second negotiation session got off to a rocky start, with more than two days lost on protocol issues. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia, Brazil, China, and India clashed with the presidency over whether or not to resort to voting in the event of a lack of unanimity in the future consideration of a draft treaty. The resolution of the controversy was postponed.

Finally, after a week, the Committee decided that “The International Negotiating Committee [INC] requests its Chairman to prepare, with the assistance of the Secretariat, a draft first version of the legally binding international treaty“. The text will be examined in November at the third meeting of this committee in Nairobi, then in April 2024 in Canada, and in November 2024 in South Korea, with the aim of a definitive treaty by the end of 2024.

Non-governmental observers

The treaty process includes the possibility for non-governmental observers to attend almost all the negotiations. However, at the Paris session, due to the size of the room, only one person per NGO could be present. Despite a statement signed by many associations, the length of the negotiations did not allow many NGOs to make any comments. It is therefore very important to follow the treaty news on the United Nations Environment Programme page, and the CIEL page which is in charge of coordinating the youth NGO accredited to the treaty.

An urgent treaty, yet negotiated at a snail’s pace – that’s how we might sum up this second phase of negotiations. We can only hope that future negotiations in Nairobi will be more prolific. In particular, the 175 countries will have to agree on the definition of plastic waste and the potential creation of a fund to help developing countries manage this waste. 

And finally, there remains the thorny question of plastic waste already in the environment: who will be responsible for paying for its management?

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