Ahead of talks on a new plastics treaty, nations are split over whether to target reductions in the amount of plastic that is produced or just to try and stop it from polluting land and sea.
In their submissions to talks taking place in Paris in May, the majority of European and African countries push for cuts to the supply of plastic while the US and Saudi Arabia focus instead on tackling plastic pollution.
The European Union’s submission says: “While measures on the demand side are expected to indirectly impact the reduction of production levels, efforts and measures addressing supply are equally needed, to cope with increasing plastic waste generation.”
It suggested several options to cut plastic production, including global targets to cut a certain percentage by a given year or nations putting forward their own targets.
The UK calls for governments to adopt legally binding targets to “restrain” plastic production and consumption while the African group lists restraining plastic production and use as an objective.
A group of countries calling themselves the “high-ambition coalition” echo the EU’s suggestion of a global target to reduce production.
But major oil and gas producers like the USA and Saudi Arabia did not call for cuts in plastic production.
They focus on tackling plastic pollution through recycling and waste disposal.
The US says the treaty should be “country-driven”, “flexible” and that its preamble could include “the beneficial role of plastic, including for human health and food safety”.
In its submission, China – the world’s largest plastic producer – said “a variety of economic and market tools could be adopted in an integrated manner to reduce production and use of plastic products”.
The coalition of small islands (Aosis), many of whom are particularly vulnerable to climate change, did not call for production cuts in their submission either.
Their legal adviser Bryce Rudyk told Climate Home that small islands’ focus was reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in the sea.
He said islands were concerned that reductions in plastic production “may actually increase the cost of the plastic that small islands would utilise”.
“We have to think of it as an environmental, economic, social, political problem,” he added. “Kind of like climate change, this is not just a wholly environmental problem”.
Environmental campaigners praised the EU’s proposals. Andres Del Castillo from the Center for International Environmental Law told Climate Home it was a “strong step”. He added that “if the plastics treaty is to meaningfully address plastic pollution, it will be critical for more countries to adopt similar positions that address the early stages of the plastics life cycle”.
Christina Dixon, who follows plastics treaty talks for the Environmental Investigation Agency, said it sent “a clear signal that the EU member states are leaders who are not willing to play with a Paris-style agreement like some of the lower ambition countries have indicated in their submissions”.
But she warned that, as in climate talks, the question of who finances action on plastics is key.
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The EU must support a dedicated multilateral fund to finance action in developing countries, she said.
“It’s great to have targets but if there’s no money for implementation you’re setting up to fail”, she added.
Fossil fuel lifeline
As well as polluting land and sea, plastics are responsible for an estimated 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions through their lifecycle.
If plastics were a country, they would be the fourth biggest polluter after just China, the USA and India.
They are made from oil and gas, potentially offering a lifeline to the sector as climate action cuts demand for fossil fuels as a source of energy.
At the last set of talks in Uruguay last year, nations were divided along similar lines.
A group calling itself the “high-ambition coalition” argued for a top-down treaty that binds all to certain measures while the US, Saudi Arabia and most of Asia wanted a bottom-up treaty like the Paris Agreement.
The European Union is facing attempts to weaken its power to vote on behalf of its member states in treaty negotiations.
Governments aim to set up a treaty by 2024 and begin holding annual Cop-style talks between treaty members after that.