What are countries doing about plastic pollution?

A reflection of a INC-3 youth delegate.

Shellan, a Youth4Ocean Forum member and INC-3 observer, reflects on the challenges facing the UN Plastic Pollution Treaty, which aims to be completed by the end of 2024.

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The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of YEE.


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The “Nairobi Spirit”

At the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA 5, 2022) at the UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya Resolution 5/14 entitled “End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument” was passed to start the process of the plastic pollution treaty.

This historic moment marked the beginning of what several major news organisations have called the most important environmental deal in all fields since the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. This paved the way for the establishment of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC) to develop “the instrument”, which is to be based on a comprehensive approach that addresses the full life cycle of plastic, including its production, design, and disposal” (UNEP) (See timeline below).

Five rounds of negotiations (INC) have been proposed for countries to come to an agreement and close negotiations by the end of 2024. This treaty will be the first-ever global agreement on addressing plastic pollution and aims to tackle the full life-cycle of plastic.

Plastics are currently one of the last unregulated industries contributing to the climate crisis and increased carbon emissions. Currently, 430 million metric tons of plastics are produced every year and without intervention, this could triple by 2060. The majority of plastic is neither recycled nor reused (UNDP).  It follows that a plastics treaty is not only necessary for human health but also for future generations. This statistic was emphasized in the most recent negotiations (INC-3) in Nairobi, Kenya in November 2023.

Timeline of the INC Process

Jun 2023
Apr 2024
Dec 2022
Nov 2023
Nov 2024

The third round (INC-3) was held from 13 to 19 November 2023 at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. After countries voted to create a Zero Draft at INC-2. The Zero Draft was a collection of ideas and views from member states submitted during the international negotiations in INC-2. The draft was released during the inter-sessional period between INC-2 and INC-3, when countries began negotiating the Zero Draft version of the treaty. During a preparatory meeting for INC-3 on November 11th,  Iran announced a low-ambition coalition with other gas-driven countries called the Global Coalition for Plastics Sustainability. There was very little to no mention of the coalition during the rest of the negotiations. Countries negotiated a specific text in three smaller groups called contact groups. Each group debated the following parts of the treaty:

Contact group 1: Part I and Part II of the Zero Draft

Contact group 2: Part III and IV

Contact group 3: Addressed elements not previously covered at previous INCs including principles, scope, and definitions.

While negotiations progressed throughout the week, the “Nairobi Spirit” died at the very last minute late on the last night of negotiations after contact group 3 could not come to a consensus on important intersessional work due to be completed between INC-3 and INC-4. Low-ambitious countries successfully used stalling tactics to threaten an ambitious treaty being drafted by the end of 2024 and aimed to be in place by 2025. While countries are eager to work and close negotiations by the end of 2024, there appear to be a lot of ideas for the treaty which are ultimately hindering progress.

More ideas than agreements after INC-3

The negotiations ended with more ideas than conclusions. During INC-3 the secretariat received over five hundred submissions from member states on the treaty. Due to the number of submissions at one point, some member states were arguing that their voices and inputs were not being heard. This led to threats by some states to quit negotiations.

The result was a revised draft expanded from thirty-one pages released after INC-2 to 71 pages. Some sections such as the scope have sixteen different options on text while several other options have four or more options. This was instead of a first draft that was expected after INC-3, a revised zero draft was released on December 26, 2023.

Low-ambitious, gas-driven countries such as Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia are arguing for a treaty focused on recycling, waste management and voluntary action, while other countries that are part of the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, co-chaired by Norway and Rwanda, are arguing for a treaty that focuses on global mandates by aiming at reducing plastic and targeting the full lifecycle of plastics. Along with more ideas, the lack of an agreement on intersessional work resulted in more setbacks.

The consequences of a lack of consensus

The initial timeline proposed important inter-sessional work which, as agreed at INC-2, should have happened between INC-3 and INC-4. This intersessional work was supposed to bring in experts on different technical and scientific topics related to plastics, finance, and implementation issues. Many of these topics would help delegates have a better understanding of what they are discussing and negotiating as well as different perspectives to fill in knowledge gaps. 

This would have helped advance negotiations further at the upcoming INCs. At the last minute, the United States tried to reopen negotiations with Brazil agreeing to try to come to a consensus on work for the inter-sessional period (months between INC-3 and INC-4), but Russia and Saudi Arabia struck down the idea. After hearing member states’ opinions, the Chair decided not to reopen negotiations delaying hopes of progress towards an ambitious plastic reduction treaty.

An ambitious treaty threatened by lobbyists

As countries argue the direction of the treaty, several issues externally and internally towards an ambitious treaty remain. The treaty has gained attention from the fossil fuel and chemical industry. According to the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), “143 fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists have registered to attend the third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) to advance a global plastics treaty, gaining access to the negotiations at a time when the talks are entering a critical phase”. The article goes on to say this is a 36% increase from previous INCs.

The fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists outnumbered the scientist coalition by over 100 people and 70 of the smallest member state delegations, and they will likely increase in the coming INCs. One of the potential solutions to preventing fossil fuel and chemical lobbyists from interfering with the negotiations would be to pass a Conflict of Interest Policy in the upcoming United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6) or future meetings related to the plastics treaty such as the future Conference of Parties (COP). A Conflict of Interest Policy has been requested by several observers. By passing this policy it could prevent a weak treaty.

Lack of representation in the treaty

The treaty continues to lack representation from key groups impacted by plastics and the effects of plastic pollution in the revised Zero Draft text: its seventy-one pages only mention “Indigenous” twenty-eight times, while “youth” and “children” combined are only mentioned ten times. Other vulnerable groups such as women, waste pickers, and workers in plastic value chains are even mentioned less. There are several vulnerable groups not yet mentioned in the treaty such as the disabled (physically and visually-impaired), people of color, and displaced people. Also, the term vulnerable populations/groups remain undefined. This could cause problems during the implementation of the treaty, leaving certain groups at risk of the effects of plastic pollution and unable to benefit from the treaty. 

Final thoughts and looking ahead

The UN Plastic Pollution Treaty faces an uphill battle to be completed by the end of 2024. It is still unknown if the treaty will focus more on waste management and recycling or reduction. Several important groups remain voiceless in a treaty critical for their health and livelihoods. The next two INCs are scheduled to be INC 4 in Ottawa, Canada in April and INC 5 in Busan, South Korea in November.

Many key elements of the treaty such as scope, definitions, and principles remain undecided, which will add to the additional challenge of cutting text and cementing a clearer direction the treaty will take. This will make it more challenging for member states to complete the negotiations by the end of 2024. If the treaty stays on schedule, the Diplomatic Conference will be held in 2025 to adopt it and for member states to sign. This would also be when a governing body will be established for future Conference of Parties (COP) to be held on the treaty.

INC-4 will be critical for countries to decide the direction the treaty will take. The secretariat will provide an update in February UNEA-6 on the status of the treaty. While history has shown it is not impossible, it is going to require total focus and compromises from member states to achieve a historic plastics treaty by the end of 2024.

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