Deep Divisions Between Nations and Big Threats for the Plastics Industry on Display at the UN Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution

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Senior Director and Principal Analyst

Last week was the second meeting of the UN Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) on Plastic Pollution. This committee is responsible for putting together binding regulations with the goal of eliminating plastic pollution (including marine pollution and microplastics) following on the UN Environment Assembly in 2022. This week’s meeting covered both procedures on how the regulations would be determined as well as initial discussions of what those regulations should be.

Key Takeaways from the Meeting:

  • The INC agreed to produce a “zero draft” of the regulations by the end of the next session in November. While perhaps not the biggest victory, the UN is moving quickly in an absolute sense: Compared to the efforts on climate change, binding regulations are set to emerge by the end of 2024, merely two years after the vote. The “zero draft” will include all the options for regulations; it’s an important refinement of the scope and possible outcomes of the UN’s effort. A firm deadline will help ensure that this step is taken.
  • Deep divisions were clear between the High Ambition Coalition — a group of countries including Japan, the EU, the UAE, and many island nations — on one hand, and oil producers and consumers including Saudi Arabia, Brazil, China, and India on the other. The High Ambition Coalition’s goal is to end plastic pollution by 2040, and these countries are pushing for major provisions, including limits on primary plastics production, bans on problematic plastics, and increased reuse and recycling. The split between these groups manifested in a fight over procedure, with the “low ambition” group pushing for decisions to be reached by consensus rather than a majority vote. This higher bar for decision-making would enable a single country or small group to veto provisions, almost certainly weakening the strength of any emerging regulations. This session was meant to finalize these procedural issues, but the parties were unable to reach a compromise.
  • There were also divisions on the issue of global versus national targets. National targets would give countries more leeway, as, in practice, less ambitious countries would likely be able to set weaker targets. The High Ambition Coalition supports global targets; the U.S., which supported the coalition on the majority vote procedure, walked a middle path by supporting national instead of global targets.

The second session of the INC, despite achieving a small step forward with the deadline for the zero draft, was marked by setbacks more than successes in the quest to set clear international regulations. The failure to agree on a procedure is a major issue that will dog the committee going into the next meeting in November. This outcome is probably a victory for those in industry that were fearful of sweeping actions, as the possibility of consensus decision-making limits the chances of most strongly worded provisions — notably, outright restrictions on the production of plastics — being enacted. Still, the shape of the international agreement remains to be seen. It’s entirely possible that the zero draft and even the final agreement will turn out to be highly ambitious, with dramatic implications for plastics producers and packaged goods firms. For more on policy, look to our Policy Compass on Chemicals.

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