EU warns “delaying tactics” have made plastic treaty deal “very difficult”

Negotiators and observers say it’s unlikely that a strong plastics deal will be done this year

EU negotiators and observers say it's unlikely that a strong plastics treaty will be done this year due to some countries' "delaying tactics"

Pile of secondhand clothing found at a dumpsite in Thailand (Photo: Wason Wanichakorn/Greenpeace)


The European Union (EU) has warned that other governments’ “delaying tactics” will make it “very difficult” to agree a new global treaty to tackle plastic pollution by the end of this year, as planned.

The head of the European Commission’s environment department, Virginijus Sinkevičius, said on Tuesday that the last round of plastics talks in the Canadian city of Ottawa in April had managed to “move the text forward despite delaying tactics by countries wanting to lower the ambition”.

Yet, he told environment ministers from EU member states, “at the current pace… it will be very difficult to close the negotiations at INC5 in November”. INC5 is the fifth and supposedly final set of talks on the treaty, taking place in the South Korean city of Busan from November 25 to December 1.

A Latin American plastics negotiator, who did not want to be named, told Climate Home that everything Sinkevičius had said was right and the delaying tactics were coming from the Like-Minded Group, which includes Russia and Saudi Arabia.

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Bethanie Carney Almroth, an ecotoxicology professor at the University of Gothenburg who follows the talks, said there were “enormous challenges to closing the negotiations in November”. Campaigner Andrés Del Castillo, with the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL), added that Busan would either result in a “very, very weak agreement, or a realisation on Sunday evening that we did not succeed”.

Plastic production divisive

At the UN Environment Assembly in March 2022, all governments agreed to set up a treaty by the end of 2024. The talks’ organisers still hope agreement can be reached in Busan and the treaty can be officially signed by governments at a diplomatic conference a few months later.

One key divisive issue is whether the treaty should be limited to halting plastic pollution or also set targets to reduce the rising plastic production and consumption that is causing the problem. Besides environmental contamination, plastic contributes to planet-heating emissions as its manufacture relies on fossil fuels.

At the Ottawa talks, governments did not agree to continue formal discussions on how to cut plastic production. But informal talks have since taken place between countries in favour of reducing production, and there will be a formal meeting of an expert group in August.

Sinkevičius warned yesterday that “these expert meetings may not be enough to secure a successful end of negotiations” this year. “We need to step up effort at all levels, including high level political involvement” before and during the Busan talks, he added.

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Speaking after Sinkevičius, French diplomat Cyril Piquemal was more optimistic, saying”significant progress” had been made in Ottawa. He noted that the G7 group of wealthy economies committed last week to reducing production of plastic and that China made a similar commitment earlier this month. “We are really on the home run,” he said through a translator.

Researcher Almroth said she was concerned that, if Donald Trump were to be elected president of the US, then it could weaken the ambition of treaty negotiations if they spill over into 2025. “A lot of people want to finish [this year],” she said, adding that “a start and strengthen approach will likely be very useful”.

But Dennis Clare, who negotiates for the Pacific Island state of Micronesia, said “it is much more important that the plastics treaty solves the overarching problem than that it is concluded by any particular date”.

“If essential elements such as constraints on plastics production are not included,” he said, “the magnitude of that mistake will only become more glaring by the day, as the health, climate and litter crises accelerate worldwide – and we will of course have to immediately get back to work to remedy the situation”.

Ana Lê Rocha, plastics lead at the GAIA campaign, agreed that the pact should not be rushed. “If we need to choose between maintaining ambition on the content of the treaty versus maintaining ambition on the timeline, it is preferable to compromise on the timeline than to have a treaty unable to meet its goal: to end plastic pollution,” she argued.

CIEL’s Del Castillo agreed, but said just prolonging the talks was unlikely to result in success. “So what we [would] need is the recognition that we need more time and a reset in the negotiation that offers a path to a useful agreement in a realistic time frame,” he added.

Big splits

While not naming individual countries and their positions, Sinkevičius told EU ministers there were still “major remaining divergences” such as on whether to limit the production of plastic.

In a written update, the European Commission said some governments – “mainly major oil-producing countries” – had slowed down negotiations in Ottawa. Similarly, Canadian environment minister Steven Guilbeault told Climate Home in April that some countries “are in more of a hurry than others”.

Powerful governments like Russia, Saudi Arabia and India have opposed targets to limit the production of plastic, preferring to focus on promoting recycling and keeping plastic waste out of the sea. The US and Iran have also tried to water down the treaty’s ambition.

On the other hand, a coalition of countries called the “Bridge to Busan”, which includes the EU, wants an agreement that curbs the production of plastic. Plastics are made from oil and gas, and their production is a significant and growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

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There are also splits over the level of detail the treaty should include, how legally binding it should be, and what a financial mechanism to support government efforts to tackle plastic pollution should look like, the EU said.

While some countries want a new dedicated fund, others including Gulf nations want to use an existing institution like the Global Environment Facility to channel finance. Additionally, Ghana’s proposal for a global fee on plastic production remains “on the table”, the EU added.

Environmental Investigation Agency campaigner Christina Dixon said “we will need deep pockets and [to] rely on developed countries, as well as major producers, to front some of the costs if we are truly going to craft a treaty fit for purpose”.

“We need those countries leading on ambitious measures on production and product design, such as the EU, to be equally vocal on the necessary funding to deliver that ambition,” she added. “Otherwise we will have a fantastic treaty but no way to implement it.”

(Reporting by Joe Loe; editing by Megan Rowling)

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