Mixed signs of agreement, warnings mark end of latest treaty talks

Photo: National Caucus of Environmental Legislators

The third round of the plastics treaty negotiations concluded 19 November on a very mixed note, with countries agreeing to move forward but with environmental groups delivering sharp warnings that the talks risk failure over resistance from oil-producing states.

Nearly 2,000 negotiators from 160 countries and observers from nearly 400 other groups, including plastics companies, wrapped up seven days of intense talks at United Nations offices in Nairobi, Kenya.

Early reactions from environmental groups, who issued the most detailed comments, were largely negative on the long-term prospects.

The environmental groups noted that the talks did not achieve their goals of getting a clear mandate for a new draft text ahead of the next round of talks, in late April in Ottawa, Ontario. They warned that without more progress, the goal of completing an ambitious treaty by the end of next year looked increasingly unlikely.

“This week made clear that an overwhelming majority of countries demand an ambitious treaty that covers the full lifecycle of plastics,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, in a statement.

“That treaty is still achievable in these talks, but only if negotiators acknowledge and confront the coordinated campaign by fossil fuel and petrochemical exporters to prevent real progress of any kind,” Muffett said.

A representative of the plastics industry pointed to progress in the text and to signs of more countries noting concerns over production caps at this session than in the previous round in Paris in May.

Stewart Harris, a spokesman at the talks for the International Council of Chemical Associations, said the talks “made good progress at gathering ideas from member states and putting them on the table. This is an essential part of any multilateral negotiation.”

He also said more countries at this third meeting of the treaty’s intergovernmental negotiating committee, or INC, seemed skeptical of pushes within the talks for caps on plastics production.

“Compared to INC-2, we did see more governments publicly express concerns with production caps of primary plastic polymers,” Harris said.

In general, environmental groups said the talks risked failure without stronger efforts at the next round in Ottawa.

“More than halfway through the treaty negotiations, we are charging towards catastrophe,” said Graham Forbes, head of the delegation for Greenpeace. “Governments are allowing fossil fuel interests to drive the negotiations towards a treaty that will absolutely, without question, make the plastic problem worse and accelerate runaway climate change.”

The World Wildlife Fund said a majority of countries want a stronger treaty but it pointed to what it said were delaying tactics from countries with strong fossil fuel and petrochemical interests.

“We saw at this round of talks a clearer articulation of what the treaty should contain than ever before, with constructive proposals and suggestions on legal text for globally binding, mandatory and specific rules at every stage of the plastic lifecycle,” WWF said.

WWF said disagreements remain over how to move ahead on creating lists of polymers and chemicals to regulate.

But it also pointed to strong support among lower and middle-income nations in Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Islands to regulate the “uncontrolled production and design of plastic materials and products.”

Countries and observers will now shift efforts to the Ottawa session, planned for 21-30 April, 2024.

But some observers pointed to challenges. The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives said there were too many points of controversy for countries to formally agree to start a new draft, and instead countries would work with a “long and unwieldy” version from the Kenya round.

Allison Lin, an executive at consumer goods maker Mars Inc. who is active in a coalition of large businesses that want an ambitious treaty, said on LinkedIn that she was “concerned by attempts to narrow the scope of the treaty text to focus only on downstream measures.” She urged more attention on eliminating problematic plastics and chemicals of concern, better product design and scaling of reuse systems.