Global Plastics Treaty: Can ‘climate’ sense prevail over oil & gas lobby?

The 4th round of negotiations concluded in Ottawa in Canada last week & 5th round to take place in Busan in South Korea in Nov-Dec. While there was some noticeable progress, attempts are being made by few petrostates, including China, India, Iran, Russia & Saudi Arabia to keep plastic production reduction measures out of scope of the treaty.
Image used for representational purpose.
Image used for representational purpose.

CHENNAI: Would the global community hammer out a consensus on an effective Global Plastics Treaty, an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, or let the petrostates have the last laugh and water it down?

After the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) concluded last week in Ottawa in Canada, its outcomes were termed “disappointing” by ambitious states and civil society groups. The last and final round of negotiations are scheduled to take place in Busan in South Korea from November 25 to December 1, 2024.

Plastic pollution is degrading the world, including ocean ecosystems. To address this issue, it is paramount to reduce production besides better management of waste. A well-designed treaty will be the most significant environmental decision since the Paris Agreement and the Kunming Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.

Inger Andersen, Executive Director, UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said, post completion of INC-4 negotiation, “We came to Ottawa to advance the text and with the hope that Members (175 countries) would agree on the intersessional work required to make even greater progress ahead of INC-5. We leave Ottawa having achieved both goals and a clear path to landing an ambitious deal in Busan ahead of us. The work, however, is far from over. The plastic pollution crisis continues to engulf the world. I urge members to show continued commitment and flexibility to achieve maximum ambition.”

The problem

Annual global production and demand for plastics reached about 460 million metric tonnes (Mt) in 2019, but there is limited recognition of the significant contributions of plastic production to climate change in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) climate negotiations.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report made it clear that without an immediate reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the mean global temperature is likely to increase by more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2050. Avoiding devastating climate change requires rapid actions in every sector on a global scale, including plastic production. This starts with a more granular understanding of GHG emissions from primary plastic production.

A study published in Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory last month estimates that GHG emissions from plastic production (from extraction of fossil fuels to shaping of the final product) could amount to the equivalent of 2.24 GtCO2e in 2019, representing 5.3% of total global GHG emissions (excluding agriculture and land use, land-use change and forestry. In comparison, the global aviation sector generated 0.6 GtCO2 of CO2 emissions in 2019, while the global transport sector, including aviation, generated a total of 8.3 GtCO2 in 2019.

Experts say the global plastic treaty presents a historic opportunity to tackle the plastic pollution. In achieving the overall 1.5°C goal, it is vital to set targets for the growing plastics industry.


As per an analysis done by Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and few other organisations, a whopping196 fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists have registered for the INC-4 negotiations. This is 37% increase in lobbyists from INC-3. As 99% percent of plastics are derived from fossil fuels, the oil and natural gas industry continues to clutch plastics and petrochemicals as a lifeline.

The participation of such large number of lobbyists was telling on the INC-4 outcome. Dharmesh Shah, Consulting Senior Campaigner with CIEL, told TNIE: "In the end, there was no consensus on polymer production reduction, which is a failure because we were expecting some ambitious countries to negotiate harder for intersessional work on this topic. This does not mean that the issue of production reduction is off the table, but that it’s delayed until the next round but at some point the countries will need to make a decision on production cuts which is the only scientific way forward to address the plastics crisis."

The provisional list shows the lobbyists registered are three times greater than the 58 independent scientists from the Scientists' Coalition for An Effective Plastic Treaty and seven times greater than the 28 representatives of the Indigenous Peoples Caucus.

Nikhilesh Paliath, who attended INC for the first time and youth volunteer with BreakFreeFromPlastic, also told TNIE from Canada that UNEA resolution 5/14 calls for a legally binding instrument that addresses the full lifecycle of plastic. "Youth across the world and in India sees this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to address the full lifecycle of plastics. As a youth delegate at INC-4 it was painful to see that member states were not having consensus on including reduction of primary plastic polymers in the treaty document. Several plastics and polymer producing countries were even trying to redefine the lifecycle approach to plastic pollution by narrowing its focus to downstream measures such as waste management. The youth sees this as a lost opportunity."

India's stance

India has insisted on consensus based decision making process. This means a single country could veto the treaty, and prevent it from getting passed. Parties have been operating under provisionally applied rules of procedure that allow for voting on decisions if all efforts to reach a consensus have been exhausted. However, under pressure from countries seeking to obstruct progress that insist there can be no voting, countries have been operating under a de facto consensus-based decision-making process, limiting ambition even on decisions related to intersessional work.

In the national statement, India has categorically said INC should focus on creating an instrument (treaty) to end plastic pollution without imposing binding targets or caps on the production of plastic polymers.

"The legally binding instrument should aim to end the plastic pollution, by addressing the availability, accessibility, affordability of alternatives including cost implications and by specifying arrangements for capacity building and technical assistance, technology transfer, and financial assistance. Further, the cost and environmental benefits of alternative polymers also need to be considered," the statement reads.

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