Slow Progress at UN Plastic Pollution Talks as Countries Clash Over Production Limits
On the final day of INC-4, delegates held talks until the early hours of the morning trying to find a way forward

The fourth session of the UN intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution ended in Ottawa on Tuesday with “an advanced draft text of the instrument and agreement on inter-sessional work ahead”, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Delegates engaged in text-based discussion on the revised draft for the first time, but there were major sticking points – especially on limiting plastic production. The European Union (EU) proposed extending the meeting but delegates failed to agree on the proposal, according to the Earth Negotiation Bulletin.

Other issues on the table related to emissions and releases; product design; waste management; problematic and avoidable plastics; financing, and a just transition.

The INC members agreement to hold inter-sessional work – expert meetings between the official INC sessions –  to work on “convergence on key issues” ahead of the next negotiating session, INC5, will take place in Busan, Korea, in November.

The inter-sessional groups will look at financing to achieve the objectives of the instrument and approaches to address  plastic pollution and chemicals of concern in plastic products and product design, focusing on products that can be recycled and reused. 

Long road to agreement

INC5 is supposed to adopt an agreement, but there is still a long road ahead as “meetings to discuss the technical elements of the text diverged on almost all points of discussion, from problematic and avoidable plastics to product design, composition and performance,” according to the Earth Negotiation Bulletin..

“We came to Ottawa to advance the text and with the hope that members 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,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director.

 “The work, however, is far from over. The plastic pollution crisis continues to engulf the world and we have just a few months left before the end of year deadline agreed upon in 2022. I urge members to show continued commitment and flexibility to achieve maximum ambition.”

However, several NGOs that attending as observers were unhappy with the influence of member states with significant fossil fuel industries. Most plastics are made from oil and gas derivatives.

“Despite hearing people from polluted communities around the world give sensible proposals to curb the lifecycle harms of plastics, fossil fuel and petrochemical interests are still shamelessly blocking progress and focusing on utterly inadequate plastic waste management,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

While Rwanda and Peru, part of the high-ambition coalition, proposed production reductions,  a coalition of fossil fuel–aligned countries, including Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia, objected to treaty measures to address plastic production, according to the CBD. 

Not ‘if ‘but ‘how’

“Canada is committed to reaching a final agreement at INC-5 in the Republic of Korea before year end. We are no longer talking about ‘if’ we can get there, but ‘how.’ Together we can land one of the most significant environmental decisions since the Paris Agreement and the Kunming Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework,” said Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, who hosted INC4. 

“We are doing everything we can to raise the international profile of the plastic pollution crisis so that the agreement gets the global attention it deserves to cross the finish line.”

INC chairperson Ambassador Luis Vayas said that “some common ground” had been found and “I firmly believe that we can carry this same spirit forth to Busan to deliver on our mandate.” Delegates accepted Vayas’ proposal for a legal drafting group to ensure legal clarity in the text of the future agreement.

Jyoti Mathur-Filipp, executive secretary of the INC secretariat,  said that “compromise and commitment remains strong at this advanced stage of the negotiations”.

“Members should arrive in Busan ready to deliver on their mandate and agree a final text of the instrument. This is more than a process – it is the fulfilment of your commitment to saving future generations from the global scourge of plastic pollution.”

Image Credits: Kiara Worth/IISD.

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