CLIMATEWIRE | An international effort to rein in plastic pollution is running into resistance from China, Saudi Arabia and other nations that see a future in plastics amid declining demand for oil, gas and coal.
That debate is playing out over the terms of a prospective global treaty that could set limits on plastic production and consumption. Environmentalists last year scored a landmark victory when 175 countries agreed to write a treaty designed to address the problems with plastic, which kills wildlife and contributes to climate change.
But the terms of that treaty are still very much a work in progress. International negotiators are meeting this week in Paris for the second of five U.N.-led deliberations scheduled over the next year and a half, and so far the discussion hasn't yielded much headway.
One obstacle is chemistry. Another is diplomacy.
Fossil fuels are major feedstocks in petrochemicals, which are used to produce plastic. That's significant because plastics could provide a lifeline for fossil fuel companies — as well as fossil-fuel-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia — as the world economy transitions away from oil, gas and coal.
The importance of oil to petrochemical production is so great that a 2018 report by the International Energy Agency found that petrochemicals were becoming the leading driver of global oil demand, ahead of transportation. It predicted that petrochemicals would account for more than a third of the growth in oil demand by 2030.
The profitable link between plastics and fossil fuels has impacted efforts to write a global treaty on plastic pollution, observers say.
In Paris this week, negotiations have gotten off to a rocky start, with countries divided over voting procedures even before the substance of talks could begin.
“We are definitely seeing a pattern among the major oil and gas producers or petrochemical producers or countries which have been investing and planning to invest heavily in building up their petrochemical industry to try and delay the negotiations,” said David Azoulay, director of environmental health at the Center for International Environmental Law.
A coalition of more than 50 countries is calling for an end to plastic pollution by 2040 and binding provisions to restrict or eliminate “unnecessary, avoidable, or problematic plastics” and polymers. But it doesn’t include pivotal countries such as the China, Saudi Arabia or the United States — the only advanced economy not to join the grouping.
Saudi Arabia’s proposal calls for “more effective waste management” with an emphasis on recycling technologies over limits on plastic production. Its state-owned oil producer, Saudi Aramco, noted in a recent sustainability report that “the long-term risk of decline in fuels demand, are driving us to direct more oil into chemicals.”
China echoed some of that language in its proposal, which calls for control measures that focus on managing the “collection, reuse and disposal of waste” that leaks into the environment.
The United States also has sought more flexibility over mandatory standards, drawing criticism from some Democrats in Congress.
A State Department official said in an email that production caps “may be appropriate” for some countries but not all and that U.S. officials see the future agreement taking a “less prescriptive” approach.
Driver of emissions
Every step of how plastic is produced, designed and disposed of — what’s known as its life cycle — emits plant-warming greenhouse gases.
Plastics generated 3.4 percent of global emissions — 1.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases — in 2019, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Roughly 90 percent of those emissions came from the production and conversion of fossil fuels.
Those emissions are only set to increase as demand for plastic — found in everything from packaging to clothing — accelerates. The U.N. Environment Programme estimates that emissions from plastic production, use and disposal could account for 15 percent of the global total by 2050, making it hard to meet global climate targets without cutting emissions elsewhere.
“In a nutshell, plastics are fossil fuels,” said Fredric Bauer, head of environmental and systems studies at Lund University in Sweden. “They are a particularly processed and refined form of fossil fuels, meaning that lots and lots of energy has been used before we arrive at the shape and form that we know plastic products have.”
Emissions associated with petrochemicals have doubled in the past 25 years due largely to growth in demand for plastic and fertilizers, according to a report Bauer co-authored last year. A new report Lund University published last week found that countries with large fossil fuel reserves are investing in the expansion of fossil-fuel-based petrochemical production.
“While governments are committing to action on climate change and have signed up to initiatives tackling global plastic pollution, massive investments are being made to expand the production capacity in the petrochemical sector, not least in the Middle East, China, and the USA,” it states.
U.S. officials, for their part, say they want an ambitious agreement but have hedged on restrictions.
The United States would like to see “commitments that promote sustainable production and sustainable consumption of plastic, that increase plastic circularity, [and] the environmentally sound management of plastic waste,” Jose Fernandez, the undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment, said during a speech last week.
But the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development finds that waste management and recycling aren’t enough to solve the problem. A report it produced last year found that less than 10 percent of plastic waste was recycled in 2019, with nearly 50 percent ending up in landfills and 19 percent incinerated — a process that raises the footprint of plastic over its lifetime.
Climate activists say the prospective plastic treaty must include limits on production and cannot continue to be based on fossil fuels.
Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme that is overseeing the talks, said in an interview with the Economist on Tuesday that recycling is important, "but we also understand that we cannot recycle our way out of this mess.”
Landing a global agreement around reducing plastic consumption would be “complex,” but “well worth a try,” she added.
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.