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Oil producers accused of slowing progress on plastic pollution treaty

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Oil-producing countries have stalled efforts to draft the first legally binding international agreement to reduce plastic pollution, proposing to shift the focus to waste management rather than reducing production, according to official observers at the UN talks of a week long in Nairobi.

The global meeting in Kenya’s capital was aimed at advancing a plastic deal equivalent to the 2015 Paris climate accord. But talks ended Sunday afternoon without a plan to formally begin work on a draft treaty before of the next meeting, which will be held in Canada in April.

Blocking tactics by countries opposed to starting a draft were “disastrous” and would prevent meaningful work from being carried out before talks resumed, said Graham Forbes, head of Greenpeace’s delegation in Nairobi.

“More than halfway through the treaty negotiations, we were heading toward catastrophe,” Forbes said. “The pollution crisis cannot be solved unless plastic production is limited, reduced and restricted.”

Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran were among the countries that argued that binding cuts to plastics production should not be within the scope of the negotiations, according to people present at the talks and documents released by the countries’ delegates. Instead, they proposed a voluntary “bottom-up” approach focused on improving plastic recycling.

Russia argued in a written statement on Wednesday that the production of primary polymers, the fossil fuel-based chemicals from which plastics are made, “should not be discussed within the debate.” [UN plastics] process and will not form part of the future instrument.” Iran’s delegation said any treaty should “exclude the stages of extraction and processing of primary raw materials. . . since no plastic pollution is generated [then]”.

Last year’s UN Environment Assembly resolution on tackling plastic pollution, which prompted the negotiations, said the “full life cycle” of plastics, including initial production, should be addressed in a legally binding instrument. by the end of 2024.

This could eventually create an agreement like the Paris climate agreement, under which countries agreed to try to limit the rise in global temperatures to below 1.5°C, but focused on addressing risks to the climate, biodiversity and the human health posed by 400 million metric tons. of plastic waste, according to estimates by the United Nations environmental program, occurs globally each year. Less than a tenth of this is recycled.

Bar chart of the proportion of plastics treated by waste management category, 2019 showing that less than 10% of global plastic waste is recycled

Before the latest round of talks, a so-called high-ambition coalition of states, including Norway, Canada, the United Arab Emirates and the EU, had called for a first draft to address binding reductions in plastic production.

Any move to curb production would be a blow to fossil fuel companies. The material market is expected to drive an increasing proportion of oil and gas revenues in the coming years, offsetting weakening demand as the world transitions to renewable energy, the International Energy Agency said. Energy.

According to an IEA analysis, petrochemicals such as plastics and fertilizers are expected to account for more than a third of oil demand growth through 2030 and almost half through 2050.

Representatives from the petrochemical industry were present in Nairobi, campaigning for solutions that did not require curbing production. According to the nonprofit advocacy group Center for International Environmental Law, 143 lobbyists representing the fossil fuel and chemicals sectors registered to attend the event.

Line chart of annual plastic use (million tonnes) showing plastic consumption will almost double by mid-century

The industry said more support was needed for “circularity” – where products never become waste but are reused, recycled or maintained – and that it was investing billions of dollars in recycling infrastructure and packaging design. .

Trade bodies representing the sector argue that plastic is essential in areas such as renewable energy and food and water sanitation. Supporting circularity “would avoid the unintended consequences of supply constraints on a material essential to meeting the UN sustainable development goals,” said Benny Mermans, president of the World Plastics Council.

Companies exposed to single-use plastics are under increasing pressure to take responsibility for the waste they produce. European consumer rights groups have filed a complaint against food and beverage producers Coca-Cola, Danone and Nestlé for misleading claims about the recyclability of their bottles, while the state of New York is suing PepsiCo over waste contamination plastics from their products into the Buffalo River.

Delegates failed to reach a consensus to give the UN intergovernmental negotiating committee on plastic pollution a clear mandate to work on the anticipated treaty’s central negotiating points, including plastic production, chemicals in plastics, microplastics and single-use plastics, before the April meeting. talks.

As of Sunday afternoon, governments and observers had submitted more than 500 proposals for amendments to the options presented for negotiation, with no decision on which to move forward.

Ana Rocha, director of global plastics policy at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, said: “The negotiation bullies have forced their way. Plastic is burning our planet, destroying communities and poisoning our bodies. This treaty cannot wait.”

But Inger Andersen, head of the United Nations Environment Programme, said that despite the setback, negotiators “will remain ambitious, innovative, inclusive and bold” and will use the talks “to hone a sharp and effective instrument that we can use to build a better future.

Additional reporting by Amanda Chu in New York

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