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April 23, 2024

Editor’s note: an absence of sustainability 

With plastic use estimated to nearly triple by 2060, government delegates face a colossal task to negotiate a robust instrument to eliminate plastic pollution © JAGADEESH NV/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
With plastic use estimated to nearly triple by 2060, government delegates face a colossal task to negotiate a robust instrument to eliminate plastic pollution © JAGADEESH NV/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The latest edition of our Sustainable Views newsletter

Dear reader,

The next round of negotiations to establish a Global Plastics Treaty, under the guidance of the UN Environment Programme, kicks off in Ottawa, Canada, today. Claudia is following the developments closely and has been speaking to a range of experts about the talks. She’s sceptical, though, about how much progress can be made on reducing plastics unless the price of raw materials increases. Indeed, many of the campaigners she’s spoken to agree financing will be key to a successful outcome.

The negotiations, which go by the acronym of INC-4, will last until April 29 and are the penultimate ones in a round of five to agree on an internationally binding agreement to tackle plastic pollution. With plastic use estimated to nearly triple by 2060 and waste now all-pervasive (microplastics have even been detected in unborn foetuses), government delegates face a colossal task to negotiate a robust instrument to eliminate plastic pollution. 

If polymer production continues unhindered, as much as 21.6bn tonnes of plastics could be produced globally between 2025 and 2050, calculates non-profit the Environmental Investigation Agency. With ambitious action, the EIA estimates 8.3bn tonnes of plastic waste could be avoided.

The current draft treaty mentions a plastic pollution fee and the establishment of a financial mechanism, but provides little detail on how revenues would be raised and distributed, says Claudia. Nathan Cole, head of sustainable business at disclosure system CDP, suggests it is difficult to envision what sort of funding structures the treaty will include, but insists whatever the outcome, “clear, comparable data will be vital to inform treaty-aligned financing across the global economy”.

Danielle Purkiss, architect and material researcher at UCL’s Plastic Waste Innovation Hub in London, believes the treaty should work in tandem with national extended producer responsibility schemes that shift the responsibility of disposing products at the end of their life cycle back to producers, under the “polluter pays” principle.

A “bottom-up” approach, where granular taxation helps subsidise national recycling and reuse infrastructure and encourages manufacturers to source less-polluting materials and more sustainably designed products, combined with a “top-down” treaty, would reduce the impact of plastics, Purkiss tells Claudia. She advocates an “incremental approach”, giving countries time to “adjust their industrial mechanisms and supply chains towards better alternatives”.

Please share any thoughts you have on the plastics negotiations and potential financing mechanisms that could help engender change. 

In Strasbourg, where members of the European parliament are meeting for their last plenary session before the parliament elections, the EU’s strategic agenda for the next four years is up for discussion.

Elizabeth Dirth, managing director of the ZOE Institute for Future-fit Economies, wants to know why sustainability has gone missing from the draft agenda. She cites the European Commission’s forward-looking “Strategic foresight report 2023”, subtitled “Sustainability and people’s well-being at the heart of Europe’s open strategic autonomy”, and signals a “significant discrepancy” between it and the latest proposed strategic agenda. “Used well, Europe’s advanced, evidence-based strategic foresight tools can give it a long-term competitive edge,” Dirth tells me. “The provisional priorities being debated in the parliament are not coherent with the EU’s own intelligence, and the most glaring discrepancy is the absence of sustainability.”

Meanwhile, companies, investors and non-profits are calling for the EU to prioritise the clean tech industry in its strategic agenda and competitive plans. One idea is for a clean tech investment plan, which would, among other things, drive reform of the capital markets union and Solvency II to better mobilise institutional investors. While US pension funds and insurance companies “are prolific investors in venture and growth capital, EU pension funds in 2021 invested less than 0.018 per cent of their total assets in venture funds”, with “massive implications” for the EU clean tech industry’s ability to scale innovations, they say. 

They also suggest the EU should consider borrowing against future Emissions Trading System revenues to fund immediate clean tech investments. “The ETS price will reach over €120 by 2030,” they argue. “Waiting until then may be too late for our clean tech competitiveness — frontloading ETS revenues through the Innovation Fund or towards fresh guarantees would galvanise private investment as soon as possible.”

Finally, Bernice Lee, Hoffmann distinguished fellow for sustainability at Chatham House, and Aaron Cosbey, senior associate at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, argue carbon border adjustment mechanisms can work and “some form of international agreement on how best to set up a CBAM would help avoid negative spillover effects”. 

Until tomorrow,

Philippa

Philippa Nuttall is the editor of Sustainable Views 

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