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Plastics Treaty Talks in Ottawa Sacrifice Ambition for Compromise – Center for International Environmental Law

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Undermined By Deep-Rooted Industry Influence — Plastics Treaty Negotiations Fall Short Of What Is Required to Fullfill Their Mandate

OTTAWA, Canada, April 30, 2024 — A week of negotiations in Ottawa has ended, failing to sufficiently advance the plastics treaty ahead of the final talks later this year. The fourth session of the intergovernmental negotiating committee to advance a plastics treaty (INC-4) saw countries adopt a weak program of formal intersessional work. Despite a handful of countries taking a stand to keep ambitious proposals alive, most countries accepted a compromise that played into the hands of petrostates and industry influences.

“From the beginning of negotiations, we have known that we need to cut plastic production to adopt a treaty that lives up to the promise envisioned at UNEA two years ago. In Ottawa, we saw many countries rightly assert that it is important for the treaty to address production of primary plastic polymers,” says David Azoulay, Director of Environmental Health at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). “But when the time came to go beyond issuing empty declarations and fight for work to support the development of an effective intersessional program, we saw the same developed Member States who claim  to be leading the world towards a world free from plastic pollution, abandon all pretense as soon as the biggest polluters look sideways at them.” 

We saw many members of the High Ambition Coalition, including the European Union, fall for a bait and switch throughout the week. The hypocrisy was also evident in the positions of purported leaders like the United States. 

“The United States needs to stop pretending to be a leader and own the failure it has created here,” said CIEL President Carroll Muffett. “When the world’s biggest exporter of oil and gas, and one of the biggest architects of the plastic expansion, says that it will ignore plastic production at the expense of the health, rights, and lives of its own people, the world listens. Even as the US signaled to the G7 that it would commit to reduce plastic production, it intentionally blocked efforts to do that in the global talks most relevant to the issue. It’s time to ask whether the US delegation to the plastics treaty simply missed the memo on protecting health and human rights from the plastic threat, or whether the Biden Administration forgot to send it.”

The controversy around production reduction is no accident — reducing plastic production poses a direct threat to the plastic industry’s long-term financial interests. A CIEL analysis released during INC-4 found that nearly 200 fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists registered for the negotiations, including at least sixteen on country delegations. 

“We are in the presence of an industry with a well-known playbook for jeopardizing the ambition of environmental and social negotiations,” says Delphine Lévi Alvarès, Global Petrochemical Campaign Coordinator at CIEL. “For two years, the majority of negotiators have come to the table in good faith, but we are facing an industry that fights dirty. Ottawa was the sad scene of intimidation of female delegates who are challenging fossil fuel and chemical interests. If countries want to get something out of this process, they’re going to have to challenge this petromasculinity — in the intersessional work, in Busan, and in whatever follows. We must take steps to kick polluters out by adopting a strong conflict of interest policy.” 

INC-4 was centered around refining the ‘Revised Zero Draft’ — a nearly 70-page document containing potential options for the treaty. Much of the week was spent streamlining the text and negotiators only began to work through the text line-by-line in the closing days. Even so, they did not decide how to narrow and refine options and the treaty text remains a sprawling, lengthy document. 

While countries are leaving Ottawa with a weak plan for formal intersessional work — including on means of implementation, expert discussions on chemicals and products of concerns, as well as product design— these sessions do not include textual negotiations and will not be enough to finalize the treaty by the end of the year, as was the original aim. 

“The INC has yet to formalize how it will make substantive decisions and the cloud of uncertainty around decision-making continues to delay negotiations on a plastics treaty that will meaningfully address the plastic crisis,” says Melissa Blue Sky, Senior Attorney at CIEL. “To solve the hardest questions, we need to know: Will Member States have the political courage to say, ‘enough is enough’ and secure majority voting, or will they continue to let obstructionist countries grind the process to a halt by threatening veto power? However challenging decision-making is in the INC sessions, countries are recognizing that we need a different approach in the future Conference of the Parties (COP). It is promising that over 70 countries recognized here that we need to solve this problem for the future COP for the treaty to have long-term success.”

Ottawa may have failed to deliver on its objective, but it succeeded in demonstrating civil society’s united front. The week was punctuated by a march, as well as multiple actions and activities — many highlighting the experiences of frontline communities and Indigenous Peoples. 

Azoulay concludes, “Civil society, rightsholders, independent scientists, and Indigenous Peoples are united. We know what is necessary to address the plastics crisis and we will be there to buttress true leaders of this space — Peru, Rwanda, and Pacific Island States — every step of the way.” 

Additional Quotes from CIEL staff:

Andrès Del Castillo, Senior Attorney, comments on the status of the text:

“We walked into the negotiations with a text full of options and we are now leaving with a draft that has brackets peppered everywhere. While it’s true that countries are beginning to negotiate text for the first time, what we now see is a series of optional provisions, including those most essential to addressing the plastic crisis — those aimed at controlling plastic production.”

Giulia Carlini, Senior Attorney and Environmental Health Program Manager, comments on the toxicity of plastics and the importance of science in the treaty negotiations:  

“At each INC, delegates grow increasingly convinced that toxic plastics have no place in our bodies, our blood, or our lungs. As we approach Busan, we hold high expectations  for substantial progress. The global plastics treaty is fundamentally a public health treaty. Toxics and microplastics recognize no borders, and it’s imperative that our leaders heed the scientific community’s urgent warnings about the dangers of toxic plastics. Now is the moment for bold action to protect not just our environment, but also our health and future generations.”

Daniela Durán González, Senior Legal Campaigner on Upstream Plastics Treaty, comments on primary plastic polymer production: 

“Hope remains, but we must overcome our fears as we leave Ottawa. At INC-4, more countries showed support, and we advanced towards textual negotiations on essential obligations to limit and reduce primary plastic polymer production, which are indispensable for a treaty that is fit for purpose. Yet, challenges persist. The absence of intersessional work on polymer production is regrettable and disappointing, and creates obstacles. As we embark on our road to Busan, countries must understand that reducing production is a priority. They must push for ambition and ensure the adequate and strong provisions needed to end plastic pollution.”

Hélionor De Anzizu, Staff Attorney, comments on international trade of plastics and subsidies:

“As nations negotiate a global plastics treaty, countries must ensure that the treaty closes any potential regulatory loopholes, addresses the full life cycle of plastics, is clear, and fit for purpose. Both production of plastic polymers — as well as the import and export of polymers, plastics, chemicals of concern, or products that contain plastics — are part of the full lifecycle of plastics and fall within the scope of the treaty mandate. At INC-4 we saw countries take a clear stand to eliminate harmful subsidies that fuel primary plastic polymer production and control the import and export of plastics and chemicals — as well as products that contain plastics or microplastics — in a comprehensive manner. Importantly, the World Trade Organization recognizes the INC processes as the primary fora for negotiating and regulating plastic pollution, including through the inclusion of trade provisions.”

Rachel Radvany, Environmental Health Campaigner, comments on conflict of interest policy and chemicals of concerns:

“Science clearly shows that more than 16,000 chemicals are in plastics, many of which have toxic impacts on human health and the environment at every stage of the plastic life cycle — from production to disposal. Yet, at the INC-4 plastics treaty negotiations, lobbyists from the industries producing plastics and chemicals were present, prioritizing their profits and interests over public safety. Despite the overwhelming industry influence and stark conflicts of interest, it’s encouraging to see a strong stance by many countries recognizing the urgent need to regulate harmful chemicals to protect our health and the environment.”

Dharmesh Shah, Consulting Senior Campaigner on Plastics Treaty, comments on human rights and civil society participation: 

“Plastic pollution is a health and human rights crisis that demands a globally coordinated response. Any future instrument must be firmly rooted in human rights, integrate strong protections for human health, honor the rights of frontline communities and Indigenous Peoples, and uphold the fundamental right to a clean and healthy environment. This also includes the right to participation, access to information, and effective legal remedies for affected populations. Member States negotiating the treaty must continue to listen to — and act on behalf of — rights holders and not corporate interests.”

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