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    INC-4: Ticking Clock in Ottawa for Critical Plastics Treaty Negotiations

    In less than a week, over 4,000 representatives from UN Member States and observers from around the world will gather in Ottawa, Canada, for the fourth session of the intergovernmental negotiating committee to advance a plastics treaty (INC-4). Previous negotiations have swirled around procedural issues, leading to delays and frustrations. As the clock ticks with eighty-five scheduled hours of negotiations left, two crucial questions arise: where do negotiations stand? What is needed to ensure success in Ottawa? 

    Over the last eighteen months, negotiations have focused on crafting a draft of the future treaty text. Member States and Observers offered written submissions and interventions during previous INCs that were whittled into a rough outline in an “options paper” and then a slightly more fleshed-out document called a “zero draft.” While the goal of INC-3 was to advance a mandate to develop a first draft, the INC instead opted to further develop the document into what is now referred to as the “revised zero draft.”

    The “revised zero draft” contains multiple options for each potential treaty provision, including sixteen possibilities for the treaty’s scope. Ranging from no scope to reinterpretations of the treaty’s mandate addressing the full life cycle of plastics and everything in between, these options must be narrowed during INC-4. 

    Member State negotiators will work to narrow these options and decide which should be pursued in the final treaty text. Hopefully, by the end of INC-4, there will be a mandate to forward a text ready for the final scheduled round of negotiations at INC-5. 

    To better understand the document, read CIEL’s Annotated Revised Zero Draft of the Plastics Treaty

    1. Progress on decision-making 

    After three sessions and many maneuvers resulting in substantive delays, the INC still needs to formally adopt its Rules of Procedure, which outlines everything from the Committee’s composition to decision-making processes. The debate over whether decisions on substantive matters requires consensus or voting remains unresolved, preemptively weakening the INC’s capacity to adopt a treaty that is fit for purpose. 

    Consensus voting is the same poison pill that has undercut the climate negotiations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for decades. As we explore in our issue brief, Obstructionist Tactics in Decision-Making, applying consensus voting to the INC will grant veto power to each participating country and make every decision about the treaty’s design default to the lowest common denominator of what all Member States can agree upon, making forward progress on plastics impossible.

    The UNEP legal officer has agreed that the Rules of Procedure have been adopted provisionally and with legal effect, including the paragraph related to how votes will be taken and decided. Still, the Rules of Procedure remain on the agenda for INC-4. 

    2. The inclusion of clear, unambiguous upstream measures, beginning with plastic polymer production (PPP) legally binding reduction obligations 

    Plastics are a significant contributor to climate change, with greenhouse gasses emitted throughout the entire plastics life cycle, and with 99% of plastics derived from fossil fuels. While downstream control measures, including developing strategies to eliminate chemicals and polymers of concern, are undoubtedly a priority, they will not be enough. New research now shows that plastics’ impact on climate change is even worse than previously thought. 

    To meaningfully address the plastics crisis, the treaty must take steps to incorporate ambitious and legally binding obligations that specifically target global plastic production. A global, quantifiable production reduction target should be maintained in the treaty text. In Reducing Plastic Production to Achieve Climate Goals, CIEL recommends a minimum of 70% reduction by 2050 compared to a 2019 baseline. 

    Some Member States argue that production falls outside the treaty’s scope altogether. But without production control measures, States will fail to address the plastic crisis. To meaningfully address plastic pollution, the treaty must consider all emissions, pollution, and risks resulting from plastics production, use, and waste management. Neglecting to address all aspects of the plastic pollution crisis — particularly around production — ignores plastics’ profound health, environmental, and human rights impacts. It would also make any remaining provisions in the treaty substantially more expensive and less efficient.

    The treaty should also set clear and legally binding rules for countries to act nationally to meet this goal. Voluntary actions, like those in the Paris Agreement, have proven woefully inadequate for achieving global goals. The plastics treaty should include measures to stop creating capacity for plastics production — the world is already over-capacity for plastics and if facilities go forward as planned, the sector will continue to grow exponentially in the coming years.

    3. Robust chemicals controls

    Recently, the first database of plastic chemicals was released. It found that plastics contain 16,000 chemicals, 4,200 of which have health and environmental risks, and 10,000 still lack information about whether they are hazardous. The treaty cannot consider them one by one. Instead, scientists recommend that the treaty ban classes or groups of chemicals based on their intrinsic properties, establish criteria to further list chemicals of concern based on the precautionary principle and require transparency. 

    4. Design of adequate financial mechanisms for implementation

    A dedicated financial mechanism is necessary to support the treaty’s objectives, particularly for countries of the Global South and those with economies in transition. Existing financial instruments and approaches — such as relying on contributions from donor countries — will replicate problems already experienced in other treaty spaces and are unlikely to be sufficient. Therefore, Member States must frontload discussions of innovative funding mechanisms during the negotiations. Intersessional work to support this could include identifying approaches for mobilizing the needed, adequate, sustainable, and predictable funds for the future implementation of the treaty. 

    5. Development of plans to address provisions for both Parties and Non-Parties 

    The plastic crisis is inherently transboundary, with global supply chains and pollution spreading across the air, land, and waterways. It can also be expected that some countries will not ratify the treaty to become Parties, opening the risk for what is known as ‘free riders’ undermining the treaty’s efficacy from the outside. As we explore in our issue brief, Non-Party Trade Provisions in Multilateral Environmental Agreements, the treaty’s success depends on how Parties and Non-Parties interact, particularly around issues related to the trade of plastic polymers and related chemicals, plastic products, and plastic waste that is not covered under the Basel Convention. Such provisions are relatively common in other multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) and Member States must begin to articulate these provisions in the text of the future plastics treaty. 

    6. Industry influence in the negotiation and development of a Conflict of Interest Policy

    A CIEL analysis shows 143 fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists registered to attend INC-3 — a 36% increase from INC-2. As the demand for fossil fuels declines, such industries see plastics as essential to their underlying business model. A conflict of interest policy must be adopted— similar to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control’s Article 5.3, which serves as a firewall preventing the tobacco industry’s involvement in negotiations. 

    Civil society organizations and independent scientists are continuing to call on UNEP and the INC Secretariat to take steps to deliver a conflict of interest policy in the INC meetings and future sessions of the Conference of the Parties. Now, UNEP, the INC Secretariat and Bureau, and Member States must show whether they are willing to safeguard the negotiations or continue to let the participation of oil, gas, and petrochemical industries enjoy unfettered access. 

    The clock is ticking and there’s a lot of work that needs to happen to bring the treaty back on track. However, time limitations should not be an excuse for lowering ambition. Activities such as calling out and limiting delay tactics, adopting a mandate for formal intersessional work, and focusing on the negotiation will go a long way. 

    Negotiators should take the time to develop a treaty that meets the mandate outlined in UNEA Resolution 5/14: the world needs a plastics treaty that addresses the full life cycle of plastics and that takes steps to protect human rights. We’ll be working alongside colleagues, civil society organizations, and rightsholders in Ottawa to hold Member States accountable.

    To read more about INC-4, visit CIEL’s Preparatory Materials for INC-4

    Published on April 18, 2024

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