Draft UN Plastics Treaty sparks debate over global production targets

Picture: Xose Bouzas / Hans Lucas / AFP

Picture: Xose Bouzas / Hans Lucas / AFP

Published Oct 4, 2023


Government representatives from around the world are poised to discuss a groundbreaking proposal to set global targets aimed at reducing plastic production.

The proposal has been included in the first draft of the United Nations plastics treaty, raising critical questions about the environmental and economic implications of this potential shift in strategy.

According to a report by Climate Home News, the draft treaty offers three distinct options for governments to consider during the upcoming negotiations scheduled for November in Nairobi, Kenya.

The options include commitments to either limit plastic production to a specified level, adopt a global target for plastic reduction, or simply pledge to "take necessary measures" to reduce plastic production without specifying a target.

The suggested measures to achieve these targets encompass regulatory actions, the elimination of subsidies for plastics, and market-based mechanisms like taxation.

Plastics, pervasive in both land and sea environments, are not only a hazard to ecosystems but also contribute to approximately 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions throughout their lifecycle.

Notably, plastics are derived from oil and gas, presenting an interesting quandary as the world transitions towards cleaner energy sources. Reducing plastic production could have repercussions for the fossil fuel sector, which has seen plastics as a potential lifeline amid declining demand for fossil fuels as an energy source.

While the European Union and a coalition of nations known as the "high ambition coalition" have expressed support for plastic reduction targets, major oil and gas producers, including the United States and Saudi Arabia, have refrained from taking a public stance on the matter.

The plastics industry, backed by entities such as the American Chemistry Council, whose board includes representatives from Shell and Total, is advocating for the treaty to emphasise recycling and waste management overproduction restrictions.

In May, the American Chemistry Council asserted that restricting the production of essential plastic materials would hinder the delivery of clean water, renewable energy, and sanitary medical and personal care products.

Environmental campaigners have generally welcomed the draft treaty's introduction of plastic reduction targets. Greenpeace's Graham Forbes noted that it "includes necessary provisions," while Tanzanian campaigner Ana Rocha viewed it as a "positive baseline".

In contrast, Benny Mermans, Chair of the World Plastics Council and an executive at Chevron Phillips chemical company, expressed concerns about the absence of options to promote a circular economy for plastics through recycling. Mermans emphasised a commitment to working with governments to find practical solutions to address plastic pollution.

The draft treaty outlines two potential objectives: one to "protect human health and the environment from plastic pollution" and a more ambitious option to "end plastic pollution."

Additionally, the treaty envisages the creation of a fund to aid developing nations in combatting plastic pollution. The fund could either be established as an entirely new entity or integrated into an existing financial arrangement.

As the November negotiations in Nairobi draw closer, the global community faces critical decisions that could have far-reaching consequences for the plastics industry, the environment, and the broader context of climate change mitigation.

IOL Environment