UN to start work on blueprint for treaty hailed as ‘most significant multilateral deal’ since the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015

Hundreds of countries around the world have agreed to draw up an international treaty to tackle the devastating impacts of plastic pollution, in an “historic” UN-led decision today that could lead to legally-binding international commitments and targets to slash plastic waste levels and engineer a more circular economy.

Heads of state, environment ministers, and diplomats from 175 nations endorsed the landmark agreement today at a meeting of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi. The deal will kick-start work towards a legally-binding treaty by 2024 covering the full lifecycle of plastics, including their production, design, use, disposal, and pollution of land and oceans.

Plastic production has risen exponentially in recent decades, having doubled since 2000 to 400 million tonnes a year worldwide, a figure which is expected to double again by 2040 unless urgent action is taken to end society’s addiction to unnecessary plastics.

A stark OECD report last week underscored how plastic pollution has impacted almost every corner of the planet’s oceans and land, with knock-on impacts on food systems, water resources, human health, and biodiversity given only a fraction of plastics produced each year are recycled or reused.

Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said the resolution to end plastic pollution adopted today would pave the way for the most important international environmental treaty since the Paris Agreement on climate change was adopted in 2015.

Bravo!! At #UNEA5 we have just gavelled the resolution paving the way for global action to #BeatPlasticPollution. The most important environmental deal since the Paris accord. The work starts now! Huge congratulations to Member States. pic.twitter.com/SyE8aBhMlP

— Inger Andersen (@andersen_inger) March 2, 2022

“Today marks a triumph by planet earth over single-use plastics,” Andersen said. “This is the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris accord. It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it.”

As the gavel came down on the resolution to end plastic pollution at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Kenya’s capital city, it sparked emotional scenes among delegates at the meeting.

UNEA president Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s Minister of Climate and Environment, thanked national representatives around the world for their work to deliver the resolution. “We are making history today, and you should all be proud,” he said after bringing down the gavel.

“Against the backdrop of geopolitical turmoil, the UN Environment Assembly shows multilateral cooperation at its best,” he added later. “Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic. With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure.” 

The resolution kicks-off a two-year process to begin work on a plastic pollution treaty with the establishment of an International Negotiating Committee (ING), a generic term for bodies that negotiate treaties.

It means there remains a long process ahead before any concrete treaty and potential measures and targets might emerge, and negotiations are likely to be complex and potentially fraught given the various competing concerns and interests of countries around the world.

But crucially, the resolution agreed today stresses that any treaty which emerges should both be legally-binding and also cover the full value chain of plastics, which means covering the upstream side – design and production – as well as the downstream side, such as waste management.

As such, scores of national representatives took turns to hail the importance of the historic agreement at the UNEA meeting in Nairobi.

The USA’s representative Monica Medina, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental affairs at the US Department of State, broke down in tears as she welcomed the plastic pollution treaty resolution. “This is the beginning of the end of the scourge of plastic pollution on this planet,” she said. “I think we will look back on today as an important one for our children and grandchildren.”

A forum tasked with drawing up the treaty is set to start work later this year with the ambition of completing a draft global legally binding agreement by the end of 2024.

It is expected to present a legally binding instrument, which would reflect diverse alternatives to address the full lifecycle of plastics, the design of reusable and recyclable products and materials, and the need for enhanced international collaboration to facilitate access to technology, capacity building and scientific and technical cooperation, according to UNEP.

The agreement also came alongside several other related commitments adopted at the UNEA meeting today, including resolutions aimed at tackling chemical pollution, mineral resources, sustainable development, and nitrogen management. Delegates agreed to establish a UN scientific body tasked with tackling chemicals pollution.

Switzerland – which initiated two of the resolutions adopted today on chemical waste management and pollution – also announced over $1.8m in funding to support various efforts towards the plastics treaty, mineral resources management, chemicals pollution commitments agreed today.

Ellen MacArthur, founder and chair of trustees of waste and resources NGO the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, hailed today’s agreement as “a key moment in the effort to eliminate plastic waste and pollution on a global scale”.

“The mandate agreed by UN member states opens the door to a legally binding treaty that deals with the root causes of plastic pollution, not just the symptoms,” she said. “Critically, this includes measures considering the entire lifecycle of plastics, from its production, to product design, to waste management, enabling opportunities to design out waste before it is created as part of a thriving circular economy.”

As well as driving down plastic pollution, UNEP has estimated shifting to a circular economy could save governments $70bn billion by 2040 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent, while creating 700,000 additional jobs.

In parallel to treaty negotiations over the next two years, UNEP today said it would work with any willing government and business across the plastics value chain to help mobilise private finance and remove barriers for investment in research and circular economy initiatives.

Businesses were among those to welcome today’s agreement. Unilever’s chief R&D officer Richard Slater said the “landmark decision” would “make a dramatic difference in the fight against plastic pollution”.

“Tackling plastic pollution is not only the right thing to do; it’s a catalyst for innovation and reflects what our consumers want – less plastic waste,” he said. “With an ambition to conclude negotiations by the end of 2024, the hard work starts now to put in a place a robust plan to end plastic pollution.”

With plastics typically produced using fossil fuels, plastic production, use and disposal is a major contributor to climate change and air pollution, with knock-on ramifications for human health and well-being, particularly in poorer and more vulnerable regions of the world.

Moreover, some 11 million tonnes of plastic waste are estimated to flow into the world’s oceans each year, affecting more than 800 marine and coastal species are through ingestion, entanglement and other dangers.

Greenpeace USA’s global plastic project lead, Graham Forbes, said today’s agreement was “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”.

“This is a big step that will keep the pressure on big oil and big brands to reduce their plastic footprint and switch their business models to refill and reuse,” he said. “Until a strong global treaty is signed, sealed, and delivered, Greenpeace and its allies will keep pushing for a world free of plastic pollution, with clean air and a stable climate.”

The timing of the agreement against the backdrop of widespread condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will also provide a boost to hopes diplomats can continue to make progress on environmental issues despite a worsening geopolitical landscape. The agreement could also provide a boost to negotiations ahead of the repeatedly delayed COP15 Biodiversity Summit, which is slated to take place later this year in Kunming, China,and has been tasked with delivering a sweeping new international accord to try and reverse global nature loss..


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