During the closing plenary session of the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly, or UNEA 5.2, earlier this year, representatives gave a standing ovation for the passing of a resolution: “End Plastic Pollution: Towards an Internationally Legally Binding Instrument.” In order to understand how groundbreaking this really is, we must understand the shortcomings of earlier proposals to fix the climate crisis.
Fossil fuel and petrochemical companies are adept at greenwashing, providing a veneer of good spirit when it comes to curbing fossil-fuel emissions. But it’s all talk to protect their interests and bottom lines. The fossil fuel industry and the plastics industry will be sure to push false solutions that will delay progress toward a more sustainable business model—one that includes extended producer responsibility and circular economy. Bioplastics and improved recycling methods are worthy avenues to pursue, but we cannot wait forever to change. We need to take action now, especially when projections show that if the current trend continues, plastic production will triple by 2050.
The plastics industry has avoided stringent restrictions by touting bioplastics, recycling and plastic waste-to-fuel conversions as solutions. It is hard not to buy into these ideas, because it makes us hopeful that we will not have to drastically change the way we live. The simple fact is, though, that we need to change … and fast.
UNEA 5.2 established an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, whose members will draft an instrument that will include legally binding and voluntary mechanisms to combat plastic production and pollution. The sheer enthusiasm for the first legally binding text about plastic was unbelievably moving. It was a testament to the willpower of the 175 nations that wanted to make a difference in global health and climate change.
The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee’s goal is to have the language ready by 2024, including the following:
The implementation of these measures cannot come soon enough. The most recent IPCC report indicates that even if we end fossil fuel emissions by the end of this decade, we are almost certain to surpass the 1.5C boundary, which refers to the earth’s temperature. We are currently at 1.2C and as temperatures rise, the earth will undergo major climatic changes. We will see more severe natural disasters, extinction of various species, and rising sea levels that encroach on homes, public infrastructure, and farmland. Every action that we take now is a race towards keeping the worst case from happening. Every degree, every moment matters and this plastic treaty matters a lot.
There is a significant amount of talk about future technologies that will help stall, if not reverse, the upward trend of global temperatures. But those solutions do not yet exist at scale, and the ones that are pointed to—such as carbon capture technology in Greenland—have an insignificant impact on annual emissions. What is needed—and what this UNEA resolution represents—is a significant step toward meaningful policy changes that will change our relationship to plastics and consumption, rather than depending on technologies that do not work or don’t yet exist.
It is time we stopped relying solely on industry, which has no real incentive besides the profit motive and changing public opinion, to change the way it operates. The passing of the resolution reflects this sentiment because it will take the entire life cycle of plastics into account. With technological solutions for disposal in the works, attention must turn to the other end of the spectrum: production. The resolution aims to reduce the production of virgin plastics, so companies cannot offset progress by scaling up their manufacturing. This holistic approach closes a major loophole for the plastic industry and opens up a real opportunity for change.
Saying that UNEA 5.2 was a success is an understatement. All 14 resolutions within the treaty are complementary and meant to align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Resolutions for sustainable lake management, animal welfare and protection of their habitats, and reduction of nitrogen waste were made, amongst others. They all have some connection to plastic’s life cycle because plastic infiltrates everything—the air, water, soil, and even our bodies. As the negotiations take place over the next two years, the United Nations Environment Programme will not be sitting idly by. They will hold a preparatory meeting, assist governments and businesses that voluntarily want to reduce their use of single-use plastics, and gather private funding to help promote this shift.
Although the effects of plastics are amplified in certain locations more than others, it is indisputable that the problem is universal and crosses political boundaries. The passing of the plastic treaty shows that it is being taken seriously. We are hitting a threshold of how much plastic we can throw away, because the waste will keep accumulating for decades at the very least. Taking action and holding producers accountable is what we need, and it is exactly what the representatives at UNEA 5.2 delivered.
Editor’s Note: Alyssa Ng is a student in the Columbia Climate School’s MA in Climate & Society program, an interdisciplinary program that trains students to understand the impacts of climate change and climate variability. During the 2021-2022 academic year, Alyssa has worked as a graduate research assistant at the Center for Earth Ethics through a Climate School program that places students in affiliates to work on research related to climate and sustainability.