And so it began: the 1st session of negotiations for an International Legally Binding Instrument to end plastic pollution
Photo by Emilian Robert Vicol
As 2023 kicks off, our team at the Global Plastics Policy Centre has had time to reflect on the atmosphere, challenges and outcomes of the first session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument (ILBI) to end plastic pollution. We’ve collated the first session’s key achievements and sticking points from our perspective.
Achievements of INC-1
1. Display of ambition
The plastics economy is highly complex, with a wide range of vested interests and actors who benefit from it. For this reason, there was much speculation as to how ambitious the ILBI might be. Tweets from the UN Secretary General António Guterres and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Tūrk demonstrated the UN system’s high-level commitment to drive meaningful conversations at the negotiations.
In the same spirit, more countries joined the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, bringing its membership to 42 countries. In addition, the Just Transition Initiative was launched by Kenya, South Africa, the International Alliance of Waste Pickers and other delegates and the Group of Friends of Waste Pickers was inaugurated. Both initiatives set their sights on ensuring that the ILBI is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creates decent work opportunities and leaves no one behind.
2. Health and human rights emerged as priorities
Many delegates asserted concern for both human and environmental health. Following the lengthy discussions of these themes, it is likely that elements of health and human rights are highly likely to be included in the ILBI. For example, Giulia Carlini, Senior Attorney at CIEL stated that “There is little doubt — the plastics treaty will be a global health treaty, and an instrument that is rooted in a human rights approach will necessarily address the disproportionate health effects in the most vulnerable and at risk, including children, youth, pregnant women, and workers with unique exposures.”
3. Stakeholder voices in the spotlight
The five-day INC saw multiple stakeholder voices, especially from vulnerable groups, being heard and receiving wide support from other stakeholders and delegates. These groups included communities impacted by the petrochemical and plastics industry, indigenous peoples, waste pickers, women, and the younger generations, all of whom are most affected by the plastics problem.
The first INC saw many scientists present, actively engaging with negotiators. This has been described as a much-improved situation in the international negotiations space, where in the past, scientists have not always received much attention. The contributions by scientists led to the establishment of the Scientists Network for an Effective Plastics Treaty (SNEPT), and the Scientists’ Declaration on the Need for Governance of Plastics Throughout their Lifecycles, which can be signed online by scientists or supporting organisations.
4. Acknowledgement of the critical role of upstream interventions
Most interventions to reduce plastic pollution have focused on ‘downstream’ measures, such as improved plastic waste collection, disposal or recycling. At INC-1, increasing attention was given to the ‘upstream’ stages of the plastics lifecycle (extraction of raw materials, the synthesis of plastic, and the production of plastic items). To effectively manage the scale of the plastic problem, the ILBI will need to address all life cycle stages. The acknowledgement at the first negotiations of the role that production has to play in contributing to plastic pollution indicates that there is potential to move beyond the existing, fragmented policy approach that focuses predominantly on single items or solely downstream measures. Rather, attention is being paid towards shifting to a more innovative and integrated system of managing plastics and plastic waste.
“A complete transformation to a circular plastics economy is needed to radically reduce or eliminate plastic pollution while supporting necessary use.”March, Roberts and Fletcher, 2022
Sticking points of INC-1
1. Important procedural matters on the backburner
During and after INC-1, negotiations intensified around several important procedural matters affecting the ability of certain countries to reflect their position in the instrument process adequately. These included, for example, only funding one delegate per lower- and lower-middle-income countries, which limited the attendance of relevant working groups from the same country, and the lack of success in establishing a full bureau for the ILBI process. Delegates felt that the time spent on potential ILBI elements was less than they would have hoped and that the ILBI objective, scope and structure discussions were substantive but took longer than expected. Initial slow progress is a concern given the tight timeline to develop the ILBI.
2. Conflicting views on industry representation
While several delegations emphasised the importance of industry participation in the ILBI process, others opposed it strongly, with many noting inherent conflicts of interest and risks of industry lobbying diluting the ambition of the ILBI. This was echoed by further calls for industry accountability and transparency as necessary obligations of the ILBI. Although it is often claimed that all stakeholders should have a voice in international negotiations, some groups, such as those on the frontline battling plastic pollution, do not have the platform or resources to engage in the ILBI process, making representation likely to be an issue of ongoing debate.
3. Voting rights (Rule of Procedure 37)
Establishing rules of procedure for negotiations is crucial to ensuring equitable involvement in the ILBI process. The Rule of Procedure 37 on voting rights (“the Rule 37”) was an unforeseen point of contention at the first negotiations. The lack of clarity focused upon whether all votes during the process need to be unanimous, and whether the EU will vote on behalf of all 27 countries as 1 vote or 27 votes. This particular rule could have a huge impact on the outcomes of the ILBI process. Rule 37 was left in brackets, i.e. undecided and inapplicable, meaning that any voting in the negotiations could be halted.
“ […] it is highly unlikely that voting would take place as long as there is bracketed text in rule 37. In this scenario, the plastic pollution treaty could fail and end up in an eternal diplomatic gyre.”Magnus Løvold, Norwegian Academy of International Law
4. National Action Plans & the “ghost” of the Paris Climate Agreement
Many countries called for National Action Plans to be adopted as the vehicle to achieve the goals of the ILBI and urged delegates to see the nationally determined contribution approach within the Paris Agreement as a useful model for National Action Plans. These calls were countered with warnings that relying on non-legally binding approaches risks diluting global obligations and not learning from the lessons from the Paris Agreement.
“[…] the national action plan framework in the treaty must take heed from the shortcomings of the Paris approach and seek to strike the balance between national action and internationally applied core obligations.”Chris Dixon, EIA
What’s in store for INC-2 next May?
All of the key challenges faced at INC-1, including participation, voting and national Action Plans, may eclipse the ILBI development, but the show of high ambition and conviction among the delegations was positive. Many countries requested UNEP to prepare two work streams for smoother preparation of policy options, on substantive measures and means of implementation (incl. control measures, core obligations, objectives, scope and voluntary measures), and another one on implementation elements (incl. assessment of progress, means of implementation, and stakeholder engagement). Following these requests, numerous stakeholders, including the Global Plastics Policy Centre submitted views on these key issues for consideration at the 2nd session of negotiations.
Fast-forward to end of May 2023, there are some points that we hope will become clearer at INC-2:
- How the effective engagement of stakeholders will be ensured;
- Whether or not the ILBI will be based on NAPs, global and binding targets or a mixture of both;
- What the suggested elements of the ILBI will be from UNEP, and;
- Whether or not the brackets in Rule 37 will finally be decided on, and what this will mean for voting.