Talks on setting up a new plastics treaty were held up for two days in Paris as Saudi Arabia and a group of big emerging economies led a push to ensure all governments have veto power over future measures.
Plastics are produced with oil and gas and, as the world begins to move to green electricity, the industry sees them as a lifeline for their business.
According to the official timetable, discussions on the rules of procedure were supposed to be wrapped up in one morning at the second set of talks on setting up the new treaty at the Unesco headquarters in Paris.
The United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), which is running the talks, thought that governments had already agreed on how voting would work, at least until the treaty is signed, at the first set of talks in Uruguay last December.
Their report of that meeting said governments had agreed to try and reach a consensus on decisions but, if that was not possible, to see if there is a two-thirds majority among nations.
This would avoid a small number of governments blocking, or threatening to block, wording that most governments agree to. That has happened or nearly happened, several times in climate talks.
At Cop26 in Glasgow in 2021, Papua New Guinea threatened to block a deal if they did not get their way over rainforest carbon credits although they later backed down.
At Cop27 in Sharm el-Sheikh in 2022, a handful of oil and gas producers like Saudi Arabia successfully stopped the conference from agreeing to phase out fossil fuels.
At plastics talks, negotiators from the USA, EU, Senegal and Nigeria also thought that the voting system had been decided.
The Swiss negotiator said re-opening the debate was “concerning” while the EU said “two-third majority rule is essential to secure progress”.
The Swiss negotiator speaking at the plastic treaty talks on Tuesday
But a group of emerging economies including India, Russia, China and Argentina said they were wrong to say that had been agreed.
Saudi Arabia’s negotiator said they had trusted the talks’ chair in Uruguay to include objections to majority voting but “it seems right now that our trust was sorely misplaced”. She was already angered by not being called to speak and her microphone’s failure.
The Saudi negotiator speaking at the plastic treaty talks on Tuesday
India’s lead negotiator said “there might have been other reasons” for Unep leaving out governments’ objections to two-third majority voting but did not explain what they were.
Saudi Arabia, China and India threatened to stop the talks going forward until the plenary had not agreed how to hold votes.
“Before we conclude and adopt the rules of procedure, we are not going to open substantive discussions of any matters in the elements paper,” said China’s representative.
“It is not fair and just to continue with proceedings without resolving this issue,” said India’s negotiator.
‘Stop scaring each other’
But speaking immediately after, Senegal’s negotiator said “we should stop trying to scare one another – some words are being bandied about and they’re quite strong – that we will not move forward etcetera etcetera – we have to avoid that kind of language”.
Senegal’s negotiator speaking at the plastic treaty talks on Tuesday
At the end of the second day of talks in Paris though, the issue was still holding up discussions on how to reduce plastic pollution.
The negotiator from Rwanda, a leader in reducing plastic pollution, expressed frustration. “Colleagues, we came to negotiate a draft treaty that will drive the world to reduce plastic pollution,” she said, “Two days down and we are not yet there”.
Closed-door meetings to break the deadlock began at 7pm on Tuesday and, according to one source with knowledge of negotiations, dragged on until at least half past midnight.
At 11am the next morning, the chair of the talks announced governments had agreed to deal with the issue later, just noting that “there are differing views”. The voting rules will have to be agreed upon before a treaty can be signed, which governments want to happen next year.
They’ve agreed overnight to this text. A glossary:
INC: These talks about setting up a treaty:
Rule 38.1: Whether decisions can be taken by a 2/3 vote or if every nation has to agree.
INC1: The last set of talks in Uruguay. pic.twitter.com/OfObJ4wE7V
— Joe Lo (@joeloyo) May 31, 2023
Greenpeace East Asia campaigner Li Shuo said it was “hard to imagine that voting will be accepted” and there are arguments in favour and against voting by majority.
Consensus ensures broad participation but can allow a few states to “hold talks hostage” at the expense of ambition, he said.
Holding to ransom
But Christina Dixon, a campaigner from the Environmental Investigation Agency, said the possibility to vote “is a critical tool for driving ambitions in negotiations”. She added that this would avoid being “held to ransom by a few unambitious countries”.
If votes are to be held, another issue still to be resolved is how much power the European Union will have.
The EU wants to be able to vote on behalf of its 27 member states but governments like the US, Saudi Arabia and Russia have pushed against this.
A joint US-EU proposal at the last set of talks suggested the US wanted the EU to only be able to vote on behalf of the member states present at the talks, making it harder for them to have their 27 votes.
The European Union represents a large chunk of the members of the high-ambition coalition against plastic pollution, which want to reduce the production of plastics and not just recycle more.
Big fossil fuel producers like the US, Saudi Arabia and Russia are not part of the coalition and have not supported production cuts.
The issues which have yet to be addressed include whether the treaty should have binding measures or be based on voluntary commitments like the Paris climate agreement.