Upcoming Environmental Assembly opportunity to agree to global treaty on plastics: UN

Marine natural capital as high as $ 2.5 trillion per year is lost due to plastic pollution annually, according to studies

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Tuesday 22 February 2022
Marine plastic litter is a global problem now. Photo: iStock

The upcoming United Nations Environment Assembly presents an opportunity to the world to agree to a global treaty on plastics and plastic pollution, Inger Andersen, executive director, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said February 22, 2022.

Such a treaty would likely to be the most significant global environment agreement since the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

Andersen was speaking at the Fifth session of the Open-ended Committee of Permanent Representatives. OECPR-5.2 is a preparatory meeting or “PREPCOM”, where delegates begin discussions on key issues ahead of the second part of the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly or UNEA-5.2.

The first session of UNEA-5 or UNEA-5.1, began virtually February 22.

The matters that required in-depth negotiations, were deferred and will be taken up at the UNEA 5.2, scheduled to be held from February 28-March 2, 2022.

Four successive UNEA resolutions have been agreed upon by governments about marine litter and plastic pollution. The fourth UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-4) held in 2019, focused on marine plastic litter. It had also addressed the broader issue of plastic pollution.

In the past two years, there has been a dramatic shift in the global discourse on this issue.

UNEA 5.2 therefore presents an opportunity to establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) according to the report Nature at the Heart of Sustainable Development: A contribution to the High-Level Segment of the resumed session of the 5th UN Environment Assembly.

The report was released by Sonja Leighton-Kone, acting UNEP deputy executive director.

The upcoming UN Environment Assembly is very likely to establish an intergovernmental negotiating committee to address plastic pollution, delegates present at OECPR-5.2, anticipated. 

This committee is needed to close the gaps in existing instruments and tackle plastic pollution. The challenge of marine plastic litter, with circular solutions across the lifecycle of plastic products from source to sea will also be addressed.

Why this matters

The global plastic market in 2020 has been estimated at around $580 billion according to a report Plastics Market– Global Industry Analysis, Market Size, Opportunities and Forecast, 2020-2027.

But the monetary value of losses of marine natural capital is estimated to be 4.3 fold or as high as $ 2.5 trillion per year, according to a study published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Climate will also pay a cost since greenhouse gas emissions from the production, recycling and incineration of plastics could account for 19 per cent of the Paris Agreement’s total allowable emissions in 2040.

So, addressing plastics pollution is a prudent investment in nature and climate, as well as a socio-economic opportunity.

The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee should aim towards a systemic change, for solutions applied throughout the entire plastic value chain, the UN report stated.

It should aim towards a rethinking of how plastics are produced, used and disposed of, with the double-dividend of not just delivering on a greener planet, but new employment opportunities.

This requires ambitious, bold and measurable action by governments, civil society and the private sector at all levels, the UN said in its report introduced at the preparatory session, February 21.

Two informal working groups have been set up to consider 17 draft resolutions before the UN Environment Assembly.

These resolutions will be considered under five clusters: Plastic pollution; biodiversity and nature-based solutions; chemicals; green recovery and circular economy; and procedural matters.

The draft resolution submitted by India on single-use plastics pollution, which proposed a voluntary approach rather than a legally-binding one, has also been included.

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