SB'24 San Diego is open for registration. Register early and save!

The Next Economy
Draft Treaty on Ending Plastics Pollution Inches Forward After Paris Negotiations

Despite procedural hiccups and ongoing debates on key issues, a first draft of a treaty will be ready for the next INC meeting in Nairobi later this year.

Last year, the world’s nations agreed to begin negotiations for a legally binding international treaty to end plastic pollution on land and sea. The second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-2), tasked with fleshing out the treaty, wrapped up June 2 in Paris, France.

Sustainable Brands® caught up with Christina Dixon, Ocean Campaign Leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)* — who served as an expert observer in the INC process, providing formal recommendations to member states and the Secretariat — for a summary of highlights from this historic negotiating session aimed at ending the plastics pollution crisis.

Over 1,700 participants gathered in Paris — including over 700 Member State delegates from 169 nations and 900 observers from various NGOs. Negotiations kicked off May 29 with hopes of addressing several apparently minor procedural issues, then spending the remainder of the INC negotiating a compendium of potential elements to be included in the final treaty.

However, a group of nations brought up a procedural issue regarding voting rights, derailing the proceedings and tying up discussions for two days straight, becoming what Dixon called “a multi-day diplomatic and geopolitical incident that had to be resolved.”

Delegations led by Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil and Iran demanded that INC rules of procedure allow for the possibility of voting on key issues if consensus couldn't be reached. These nations — most of which are heavily dependent on plastics production — feared that without having a right to vote, their interests would be overlooked. The majority of nations — many of which have high ambitions for tackling plastics pollution from a full lifecycle perspective — oppose voting.

“[The voting issue] seemed pretty innocuous, a trivial thing,” Dixon explained. “But actually, it goes to the heart of the issue that we’re trying to solve — because if we don’t have rules that allow the majority of countries to say, ‘This is the measure that we think is important,’ it allows one or two countries to essentially veto anything ambitious that gets put into the treaty.”

The handful of countries desiring this veto power also advocate for creating their own national action plans, in stark contrast to “the vast majority of countries that see it as a lifecycle issue that starts with production, and it can only be solved with global rules and global targets,” Dixon said.

Unfortunately, the issue remains unresolved — with the debate culminating in an interpretative statement tabling the topic until it's brought up at the next INC in Nairobi later this year.

Despite the procedural hiccups, the INC-2 accomplished its main objective: A mandate requiring the Chair of the Negotiating Committee draft a treaty for the next INC.

“This was the big prize,” Dixon said. “If we didn’t get the mandate, we were looking at extending the timeline of the INC beyond 2024.”

Elements of the treaty could include everything we could ever need in an agreement to end plastic pollution: from fossil-fuel subsidy reform and production caps to elimination of chemicals of concern, repair legislation, extended producer responsibility (EPR), chemical-recycling restrictions, incineration bans and more.

“We’re talking about crafting an instrument that could promote massive, systemic change to some pretty significant and lucrative industries such as the petrochemical industry,” Dixon said. “There are a number of countries that really rely on the continued expansion of this industry; so, they have a vested interest to keep functioning in the current format.”

Some of these countries are proposing what Dixon called “false solutions” to enable the status quo — including chemical recycling, and plastics cleanup and offset schemes.

The INC-3 will have to address several issues that were not discussed at the INC-2 — including addressing polymers of concern targeted for reduction and/or elimination (such as PVC, polystyrene and polyurethane). Information on this topic needs to be available for the next INC, Dixon said, and the foundation laid for meaningful intercessional work among stakeholders from now until the INC-3.

There wasn’t time to get into substantive discussions about basic treaty elements such as:

Questions like these will live in brackets in the text until the next INC, where nations will once again show their cards by what they demand be included (or left out) of the treaty language.

“I feel like we left [the INC] without any formal clarity on the intercession work,” Dixon said. “That means that, whilst work will still happen, we could still get to the next INC unprepared.”

But at least there’s the zero-draft mandate — a concrete body of text to dig into later this year in Nairobi. Agreeing to the zero-draft mandate was critical to success, as it signified an overarching consensus that plastic pollution must be addressed together.

“It demonstrates there is a willingness to collaborate and move the work forward,” Dixon said. “Even the countries that were obstructive throughout the week on process didn’t completely block the decision to do the first draft of the treaty … At the end of the day, if they really wanted to create a nightmare, they could have blocked the decision to do a draft — which they didn’t.”

A lot of work will have to be done between now and the next INC to build on common values, all the while trying to build broader consensus on the role that lifecycle interventions — not waste management alone — must play in curbing the plastics crisis.

Dixon is cautiously optimistic. She noted a global spirit of multilateralism as of late — pointing to the success of the recently adopted global High Seas Treaty.

“These are very complex environmental challenges that need to be solved,” Dixon said. “Nothing can ever be perfect; but there has been quite a significant move forward in countries coming together to tackle common global challenges together.”

Still, she fears nations will once again bring up the consensus issue to stymie discussion on the draft treaty. She hopes governments will engage in meaningful, bilateral work between the INCs to smooth out issues that could eat up valuable negotiating time at the INC-3.

“They need to find some common ground, so that we don’t have any surprises at the next INC,” Dixon said. “We don’t have any time to lose — we have a very limited window to achieve the agreement.”

A first draft of the treaty will be ready to review at the INC-3, which will be held later this year in Nairobi. The draft treaty will be the basis for negotiations moving forward, culminating in a ratified treaty in 2024.

* It is the EIA’s position that a treaty must address the full lifecycle of plastics.