Big Oil influence at UN talks thwarts progress towards reaching an effective Global Plastics Treaty

The influence of the global petrochemicals industry and plastic-producing countries has frustrated meaningful progress towards agreeing a Global Plastics Treaty.

The third round of talks of the UN’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) concluded in Nairobi late on Sunday night.

But despite high expectations for progress, member states instead left the negotiating table with a great deal of work to be undertaken before the next round of talks in April 2024.

Plastic tap installation outside the UN by artist Von Wong

Plastic tap art installation outside the INC talks by artist Von Wong (c) EIA

EIA Ocean Campaigner Jacob Kean-Hammerson, who was part of the team at INC-3, warned: “This setback jeopardises significant advancements in the treaty process, leaving many questioning the commitment to tackling one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time.

“The petrochemical influence loomed large over the negotiations, with a ‘like-minded’ group of plastic-producing countries thwarting efforts for a more robust agreement.”

In total, 143 fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists were registered at the talks.

Meanwhile, the so-called ‘high ambition’ countries failed to demonstrate their commitment to a strong agreement, resulting in a lack of concrete progress towards achieving the mandate adopted at the fifth UN Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) which set out a two-and a half year timeline to develop a comprehensive and legally binding treaty covering measures along the entire lifecycle of plastic.

This meant that, despite a full week of negotiations and little more than a year to go before the scheduled end of talks, the outcome of INC-3 was little more than a bloated version of the Zero Draft – the text prepared by the INC Chair, in cooperation with the Secretariat, in September this year to form the basis for negotiations.

Kean-Hammerson added: “Critically, this was also a missed opportunity to initiate a programme of ‘intersessional work’ between the meeting in Nairobi and the next round of talks at INC-4, something that was highlighted as a priority ahead of the meeting.”

Although the outcome of INC-3 is a significant disappointment, some countries, notably from the Small Island Developing States and the Africa Group, championed provisions in the prospective treaty to address plastic production, chemicals of concern and the protection of human and environmental health.

They also emphasised human rights, the importance of including of indigenous peoples’ voices and the need for a just transition.

Unfortunately, the outsized influence of a group of fossil fuel and plastic-producing countries overshadowed these critical perspectives.

Despite this setback, member states still have an opportunity to deliver one of the most significant environmental agreements in history by the end of 2024 – although the path ahead appears more treacherous than ever.

To overcome obstacles, so-called ‘ambitious countries’ must reevaluate how to engage with those parties that are deliberately obstructing the negotiation process,” added Kean-Hammerson.

The EIA team at the INC-3 talks (c) EIA

Throughout the week, the INC-3 primarily engaged in three contact groups: the first reviewed the Zero Draft’s first two parts, covering aspects such as the preamble, objective, definitions, principles and scope; the second focused on exploring options for financing, capacity-building, national plans, implementation, compliance, reporting and monitoring; and the third discussed elements not addressed and examined at previous INCs and potential intersessional work.

Civil society organisations such as EIA played a crucial role in exposing conflicts of interest within the INC-3 process – an analysis revealed a 36 per cent increase in the number of fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists compared to INC-2.

The INC-3 meeting in Nairobi underscored the challenges and complexities in navigating the geopolitical dynamics that threaten a Global Plastics Treaty to effectively tackle the mounting environmental crisis.

Kean-Hammerson  concluded: “The conflicting interests and lack of ambition from key countries is clear for all to see. The international community must come together, now more than ever, to address these obstacles head-on.

“We must see a renewed commitment to creating a comprehensive and effective treaty that will safeguard our planet from the devastating impacts of plastic pollution.”

The next round of talks is scheduled for 21 April 2024, in Ottawa, Canada, followed by INC-5 in Busan, South Korea, in November 2024.