UNEA 5.2: Excitement, jubilation as resolution to end plastic pollution by 2024 adopted

The treaty called for “sovereignty of states to work for public good”

By Maina Waruru
Published: Thursday 03 March 2022
UNEA 5.2: Excitement, jubilation as resolution to end plastic pollution by 2024 adopted Photo: Inger Andersen / Twitter

Jubilation and cheers of joy rent the air at the fifth session of the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA-5) at Nairobi, Kenya, as representatives of 175 states unanimously adopted an ambitious resolution March 2, 2022 calling for establishment of a legally binding treaty to end plastics pollution by 2024.

The mood of the delegates at the main hall of the UN complex turned festive as soon as UNEA President Espen Barth Eide read the resolution and declared it as unanimously endorsed, the last in a raft of 14 passed during the final session of the event.

The assembly that included environment ministers of various nations endorsed the landmark agreement during the plenary in what was described by UNEP Executive-Director Inger Andersen as the “most important multilateral environmental deal since the Paris Agreement of 2015”.

An Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) will be constituted following the ‘historic’ resolution. It will commence deliberations and convene a forum before the end of 2022, open to all interested parties, to share knowledge and best practices in different parts of the world. 

“The world is demanding that we act on plastic pollution, the negotiators have delivered the first step in this process by agreeing to establish an INC that will forge a global agreement on plastic pollution,” Andersen said. She added:

It will facilitate open discussions and ensure they are informed by science, reporting on progress throughout the next two years, and upon completion of the INC’s work, UNEP will convene a diplomatic conference to adopt its outcome and open it for signatures.

The upcoming pact comes at a time when plastic production has risen exponentially in the last few decades, she said. “The production volume is around 400 million tonnes per year and is expected to double by 2040.”

It will, however, only truly count if it has clear provisions that are legal and adopts a full life-cycle approach, stretching from design to production to circularity to reducing, managing and preventing waste, Andersen added.

The negotiations will make for a highly ambitious timeframe of only two years, she noted. “They will reflect the member states’ understanding of the urgency to make progress on the critical environmental challenge of plastic pollution.”

She acknowledged that thorny issues will be encountered during the negotiations period, mostly related to the speed of the process and clarity of goals to be included in the draft. However, the private sector as producers of plastics will be brought into the deliberations, which could help hasten the process, she told a media conference later in the evening. 

The presence of the private sector will also help identify which chemicals were not needed as well as why and which were needed to be eliminated, she shared.

Like all conventions, the pact will have a financial mechanism to help countries quickly shift from unhealthy reliance on plastics, but will mainly come in the form of technical assistance, she explained.

She advised countries: It is not impossible to ban plastics, 24 African countries for example have banned single-use plastics. So, other countries can also do it. Do not sit back and wait before you act.

It was possible to change people’s behaviour with regard to plastics, even without paying for it, noted Eide, who is also Norway’s Minister of Climate and the Environment. The pact anticipated financial mechanism will not pay but will make it “safe and attractive” to stop using plastics.

The treaty called for “sovereignty of states to work for public good”, he noted, as it comes at a time of international turmoil highlighted by the conflict in Ukraine.

“Serious businesses should start thinking of how to proceed and end plastics use even before the regulations come,” he added.

The passing of the resolution “brought nature to the room” and proved that “multilateralism was still alive despite being tested”, said Leila Benali, Morocco’s Minister of Energy Transition and Sustainable Development. She is the newly appointed President of UNEA-6.

The minister, who immediately takes over as president of the sixth session of the assembly that will deliver the agreement, reckoned that there will be challenges in delivering the treaty by 2024, posed to governments by the private and the civil society. 

She also expressed optimism that the treaty will be crafted as scheduled in the spirit of multilateralism demonstrated in crafting the resolution. 

A resolution for establishing a Science Policy Panel for UNEP on management of chemicals and waste was passed at the assembly. It will be a science think tank similar to the prominent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

It will guide decisions made on the environment using science, the minister said, and according to Andersen it might take time before it is operational “just like it did with the IPCC”. 

It was described by the Government of Rwanda, which alongside India and Peru, sponsored the resolution as a monumental and timely decision.

Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, Rwanda's minister of environment, said: 

The world has come together to act against plastic pollution — a serious threat to our planet. International partnerships will be crucial in tackling a problem that affects all of us, and the progress made at UNEA reflects this spirit of collaboration. 

The UNEA-5 decision also won rare praise from the environmental group Greenpeace. It’s with gratitude and optimism that we finally get to witness this day after decades of relentless effort to rid the environment of the plastic menace, said Greenpeace Africa’s Erastus Ooko. 

Today, global leaders sitting in Nairobi heard the millions of voices around the world who are demanding an end to the plastic pollution crisis, said Graham Forbes of Greenpeace USA. “This is a clear acknowledgment that the entire lifecycle of plastic, from fossil fuel extraction to disposal, creates pollution that is harmful to people and the planet.”

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