Draft UN plastics treaty threatens Big Oil’s plan B

Countries are considering a global target to curb plastic production, not just focus on recycling as the industry wants

Draft UN plastics treaty threatens Big Oil's plan B

Plastic bottles overwhelm a statue of former UK prime minister Boris Johnson (Photo credit: Greenpeace / Park Village, Studio Birthplace)


Governments will soon debate whether to set a global target to reduce the production of plastics after negotiators put it on the agenda for plastics treaty talks in November.

The first draft of the new United Nations plastics treaty contains options where governments commit either to stop their plastic production rising above a certain level or to commit to a global target.

Another option is for governments to promise to “take the necessary measures” to cut plastic production, without committing to a target.

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The three options will be discussed when government negotiators gather in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi in November, for the third set of talks on setting up the new treaty.

The draft says the targets could be met through regulation, the removal of subsidies for plastics and “market-based measures” like taxes.

As well as polluting land and sea, plastics are responsible for an estimated 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions through their lifecycle.

They are made from oil and gas, potentially offering a lifeline to the sector as climate action curbs demand for fossil fuels as an energy source. Targets to cut plastic production pull the lifeline away.

BP expects the share of oil demand for non-combusted (grey) uses like plastic to rise in the next few decades. (Photo: BP/Screenshot)

The European Union and a group of nations calling themselves the “high ambition coalition” support targets while major oil and gas producers like the US and Saudi Arabia are keeping quiet.

Reduce vs recycle

The plastics industry is lobbying to keep the focus of the treaty on recycling and waste management, not limiting production.

The American Chemistry Council, whose board includes representatives of Shell and Total, said in May that “restricting the production of plastic materials essential to delivering clean water, renewable energy, and sanitary medical and personal care products is the wrong approach.”

The members of the self-described “high-ambition coalition” are in light blue (Image credit: High Ambition Coalition)

Reacting to the draft treaty’s release this week, campaigners were more pleased than the industry.

Greenpeace’s Graham Forbes said it “includes necessary provisions” while Tanzanian campaigner Ana Rocha said it “sets a positive baseline” and Yvette Arelano from Texas said it “takes a step in the right direction”.

On the other hand, the chair of the World Plastics Council Benny Mermans said he was “concerned at the absence of options to accelerate and scale a circular economy for plastics”. A circular economy is one where materials like plastic are recycled.

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Mermans, an executive from the Chevron Phillips chemical company, added: “We look forward to continuing our engagement with governments to find practical solutions to help eliminate plastic pollution.”

The draft also offers two options for the objective of the treaty. One is to “protect human health and the environment from plastic pollution”. The more radical option is to “end plastic pollution”.

The draft says a fund will be set up to help developing countries tackle plastic pollution. This will either be an entirely new fund or a fund “within an existing financial arrangement”.

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