Delay tactics: Outcomes of Paris plastic meet 2023 were far from expectations; here is why

Slow progress on treaty to end global plastic pollution as countries hold up negotiations with procedural objections

By Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh, Atin Biswas
Published: Friday 23 June 2023
The voting versus consensus debate continued for three days at the meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for Plastics (Photograph: IISD/ENB - Kiara Worth)

On May 29, when the UN’s 193 member-states met in Paris, the task at hand was to prepare a zero draft of a legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution. At the end of the five-day meet of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) for Plastics, this target was deferred. Now, the UN Environment Programme’s INC Secretariat will prepare the zero draft by November this year, when the world meets at Nairobi.

This was the second of five meetings due to take place to complete negotiations by 2024. Such a short timeline made it critical to decide on the substance of the text at Paris. The INC Secretariat will now take submissions from observers and countries on principles and scope of the instrument and possibility of work before the Nairobi meet.

The outcomes of the meet are far from expectations, especially those of the 57 countries—the so-called High Ambition Coalition—committed to a robust instrument that addresses the full lifecycle of plastic.

The reason was a set of delays caused largely by nations with economic interest in plastic and in materials used in its production such as oil, gas and petrochemicals. This group has been informally labelled by civil society and non-profits as the No Ambition Coalition.

The first agenda item of the meet—election of a bureau to guide the INC Secretariat in organising future meets—was derailed obecause Eastern European region saw more nominations than two, as stipulated by INC. Moreover, one candidate from Western Europe (this includes US and Canada) faced an objection.

Such a situation was unusual; these issues are typically ironed out at regional meets before the plenary. Nevertheless, the INC Secretariat suggested a secret ballot vote for election from both regions.

This saw objection from Saudi Arabia, Russia and India, believed to be part of the No Ambition Coalition. They were supported by China, Iran, UAE and Argentina.

The objecting countries said allowing voting would set a precedent for future decision-making. They emphasised on a consensus system, though it leaves room for decisions to be stalled if there is no unanimity.

Eventually, the bureau was elected, but the voting versus consensus debate continued.

On the second day, India reiterated a point of contention from the first INC meet last year. The instrument to end plastic pollution has, for now, adopted rules of procedure followed by the Minamata Convention on Mercury. India has been stressing on “bracketing” Rules 37 and 38.1, essentially rendering them inapplicable. Rule 37, as per the Minamata Convention, gives each country one vote; with a provision for exception to blocs like the EU (INC has already bracketed this provision). Rule 38.1 allows for voting to gain a two-thirds majority, if all measures to reach consensus fail.

India’s insistence was echoed by others in the No Ambition Coalition. Finally, INC decided to finalise an interpretative text to highlight the disagreement. The issue will be discussed in Nairobi this November.

Loose ends

Even as negotiations began on the third evening of INC-2, it became apparent that certain countries are unwilling to let go of plastic and its profits. The plenary was divided into two contact groups to discuss in parallel substance (objectives and core obligations) and implementation (measures and means).

Most member-states agreed the objective of the instrument should read, “End plastic pollution; protect human health and the environment from its adverse effects throughout the life cycle of plastic”.

While India did not state a preference on this, it was not in favour of having a timeline to end plastic pollution. The rationale India gave was there would be doubts on the instrument beyond the timeline.

An option for core obligations, “Phasing out and/or reducing the supply of, demand for and use of primary plastic polymers”, was rejected by India, Indonesia, Iran, China, Republic of Korea, Russia and the US.

India said the problem is of plastic “litter”, not plastic as a material. So, emphasis should be on plastic waste management. This is contradictory to the principles of waste management, in which the first steps are prevention, minimisation and reduction.

The idea of developing national action plans on plastic was supported by most member-states. However, India recommended against a template, saying that countries should plan based on circumstances and capacities.

The country, with backing from US and Russia, also objected to banning, phasing out, reduction and control of production of specific problematic, unnecessary and avoidable plastics. This is despite India having restrictions on single-use plastic since 2022.

The African states emerged as the most progressive group at INC-2. Most of them, including oil-rich Nigeria, agreed to hard interventions on production and use of plastic.

Pressure points

The instrument to end plastic pollution has, in a way, drawn battle lines among countries. As focus shifts to the zero draft, emphasis should be to uphold the basic tenet to address the full lifecycle of plastic. Experts at Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment highlight focus areas:

First is the upstream phase or extraction and refining of raw materials, and industrial production of plastic. The text must scrutinise the kind of plastic produced and the chemicals involved in terms of polluting potential.

The midstream phase is distribution of plastic through businesses, street vendors and retailers. Focus here should be on phasing out “non-recyclable” plastics. A potential sticking point here is that the options guiding INC discussions use “problematic/unnecessary/avoidable” in lieu of non-recyclable. This opens the text to many interpretations.

Finally, the downstream phase is plastic waste management, mechanical recycling and end-of-life disposal. The petroleum, petrochemical and plastic industry uses “disposal” and “industrial recycling” interchangeably. There should be clear definitions.

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This was first published in the 16-30 June, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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