This is a monumental year for multilateralism to prevail in the fight against plastic pollution, as the United Nations has committed to delivering a legally binding agreement by the end of 2024. The agreement is expected to catalyze global action to transform the way how we produce and eliminate plastics. Three rounds of negotiations laid the foundation and two more meetings of the intergovernmental negotiating committee will be held in Canada and South Korea in April and November. Here are four key issues to watch in 2024.
Consensus is the challenge of plastic pollution
After heated discussions at the second meeting of negotiators in Paris, nations remain undecided on whether to adopt decisions exclusively by consensus or consider a two-thirds majority vote.
Consensus is a fundamental principle in global diplomacy. It ensures everyone is involved, encourages ownership, and leads to decisions that everyone considers legitimate and fair. However, when it comes to a complex issue like plastic pollution, where some nations benefit from increased plastic production while others bear a disproportionate burden, consensus can be difficult.
Past experience with other global environmental agreements shows that relying solely on consensus can slow progress and result in compromises that reduce effectiveness. Judging by their most recent meeting, this could happen with the plastics treaty talks. Although plastic production is expected to triple by 2060, recycling rates hover below 10%. Science tells us that downstream measures alone will not end plastic pollution.
All eyes are on the upcoming negotiations to see if a balance can be struck between inclusivity and the need for swift and effective action.
How will climate negotiations affect plastics negotiations?
At the recent Climate Conference of the Parties (COP 28), leaders agreed that the world needs to transition away from fossil fuels to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. This could have significant implications for the fossil fuel industry, given that 99 percent of plastics are produced from fossil fuels. Some experts predict that plastics will become “Plan B” for the fossil fuel industry. According to the International Energy Agency, plastics are expected to drive nearly half of the growth in oil demand by mid-century.
UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen warned at COP 28 that; “Plastics are not a lifeboat for you as energy systems decarbonize. The world cannot afford emissions. And besides, what are you going to do in a lifeboat other than wander around aimlessly while the world changes around you?
Negotiators are therefore encouraged to consider the links between climate and plastics negotiations and the implications for plastics, because climate change and plastics pollution are two sides of the same coin. The private sector could also anticipate the future treaty by starting to intensify its search for sustainable options. This new direction could increase the market share of companies adopting green energy options and sustainable eco-friendly alternatives to plastics.
What will be the role of the private sector?
The role of the private sector in plastic pollution cannot be ignored. A recent study found that just 20 companies were the source of more than half of single-use plastics. While producing Although plastics may seem cheap, the price does not take into account environmental and socioeconomic costs. According to WWF, the social cost of plastic pollution, emissions and cleanup could reach $3.7 billion – more than India’s GDP – from plastic produced in 2019 alone.
In addition to the moral responsibility to producers, they are also in a better position to face the shift to environmentally sustainable products. Political, economic and social incentives need to be developed to make producers more responsible for the environmental costs of their products. The plastics treaty is expected to establish extended responsibility regimes for producers that will combat plastic pollution at its source.
It is not yet known how private companies, especially fossil fuel companies and plastics producers, will act in negotiating the plastics treaty. An analysis also showed that the number of lobbyists from the chemical and fossil fuel industries in negotiations is increasing. Some of the Member States also included lobbyists from fossil fuel companies in their delegations.
How will governments respond?
Some countries have already taken action. Rwanda banned disposable bags and cutlery as early as 2008. Thirty-four African countries followed suit. As negotiations progress and public awareness and scrutiny increase, more governments will be pressured by civil society and expected to introduce regulations.
Local governments also resumed the fight. In November 2023, the State of New York sued PepsiCo, accusing the beverage and snack giant of polluting the environment and endangering public health through its single-use plastic bottles and packaging. This lawsuit is one of the first filed by a US state to target a major plastics producer. In 2022, California announced an investigation into the role of the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries in plastic pollution. These actions will set precedents for making producers and polluters pay for their negative environmental impact.
Moving forward with hope
As we work towards a global agreement on plastic pollution, it is critical that everyone commits to this important journey. It is not easy to balance the different opinions and priorities of countries, industries and groups, but we encourage everyone to approach this challenge with optimism. It’s a crucial step towards the big changes needed to end plastic pollution.
Moving away from fossil fuels could have an impact on the plastics industry. Therefore, it is important that negotiators think carefully about what this means and how we can use this change to reduce the production and use of plastics. This is a call to action for everyone – governments, businesses, schools and communities – to join forces and tackle one of the most pressing challenges we face. Together, we can create a more sustainable, resilient and fair future. Yes, it is possible!