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World Leaders Move Towards a Binding Treaty to End Plastic Pollution

Plastic bottle

Published Mar 4, 2022 9:40 PM by The Maritime Executive

The world has embarked on a path to end plastic pollution with a historic international resolution that paves the way for a legally binding agreement by 2024.

During the 5th United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) in Kenya, a total of 175 nations endorsed the resolution to end plastic pollution, which has grown into an epidemic amounting to some 400 million tonnes annually - a figure that is projected to double by 2040.

“With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure,” said Espen Barth Eide, UNEA-5 President and Norway’s Minister for Climate and the Environment.

The resolution, which is based on three initial draft resolutions from various nations, establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) that will begin its work in 2022 with the ambition of completing a draft global legally binding agreement by the end of 2024.

The INC is expected to present a legally binding instrument that would address the full lifecycle of plastics, the design of reusable and recyclable products and materials, and the need for enhanced international collaboration to facilitate access to technology, capacity building and scientific and technical cooperation.

“Today marks a triumph by planet earth over single-use plastics. This is the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord. It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director.

He added that in parallel to negotiations over an international binding agreement, UNEP will work with willing governments and businesses across the value chain to shift away from single-use plastics, as well as to mobilize private finance and remove barriers to investments in research and in a new circular economy.

Plastic pollution has become a global problem. UNEP data shows that plastic production soared from two million tonnes in 1950 to 348 million tonnes in 2017 to become a global industry valued at $522.6 billion, and it is expected to double in capacity by 2040.

The impacts of plastic production and pollution on the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss and pollution are a catastrophe in the making. Exposure to plastics can harm human health, potentially affecting fertility, hormonal, metabolic and neurological activity, and open burning of plastics contributes to air pollution.

By 2050 GHGs emissions associated with plastic production, use and disposal would account for 15 percent of allowed emissions under the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C (34.7°F). More than 800 marine and coastal species are affected by plastic pollution through ingestion, entanglement and other dangers. 11 million tonnes of plastic waste flow into oceans annually and this may triple by 2040.

According to UNEP, a shift to a circular economy could reduce the volume of plastics entering oceans by over 80 percent by 2040, reduce virgin plastic production by 55 percent, save governments $70 billion by 2040, reduce GHGs emissions by 25 percent and create 700,000 additional jobs, mainly in the global south.

“The resolution will clearly take us towards a future with no plastic pollution, including in the marine environment,” said Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, Japan’s Environment Minister.

By the end of this year, UNEP is expected to convene a forum to share knowledge and best practices in different parts of the world and facilitate open discussions that are informed by science, reporting on progress throughout the next two years. Finally, upon completion of the INC’s work, the agency will convene a diplomatic conference to adopt its outcome and open it for signatures.

Apart from putting an end to plastic pollution, the assembly also adopted 13 other resolutions to strengthen actions for nature to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

The three-day UNEA-5.2 meeting was attended by more than 3,400 in-person and 1,500 online participants from 175 countries, including 79 ministers and 17 high-level officials.