New plastics economy needed to protect the climate-Experts


Experts meeting at the sixth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6) in Nairobi last week, suggested that a transformation of the global economy is urgently needed to curb existential threats to nature and humankind caused by plastics.

The production and use of plastics has grown exponentially over the past decades, with extensive consequences and costs for the environment, both marine and terrestrial, human health and the climate.

Not only is plastic waste contaminating food, water and the oceans, with plastic litter making up 85% of marine waste; the production, use and waste management of plastics also generates about 4% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

The plastics industry is the fastest-growing source of industrial greenhouse gases in the world. Under a business-as-usual scenario, the plastics lifecycle could be responsible for as much as 19% of global greenhouse emissions by 2040.

Given the limited carbon budget available, this would put the central Paris Agreement goal of holding global average temperature rise under 1.5 degrees Celsius out of reach.

International governance systems need to be applied to plastics

At an event co-organized by the UN Climate Change secretariat and GRID-Arendal in Nairobi, experts noted that the international response has significantly well-developed international governance systems that can be applied to plastics. This can happen in the form of the Paris Agreement and other Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs).

Such Multilateral Environmental Agreements include the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions which all share the common objective of protecting human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals and wastes.

Cecilia Kinuthia-Njenga, Director of Intergovernmental Support and Collective Progress at the UN Climate Change secretariat, said: “From the climate regime, we recognize the value of transparency, accountability and collaboration. Scientific research confirms that we have a very limited window of action for lasting change. No single instrument and no single institution is adequate to tackle the problem. Collaboration and cooperation are therefore key.”

Under the UNFCCC and its Paris Agreement, numerous references have been made to the need to transition towards sustainable lifestyles and sustainable patterns of consumption and production as a key means to tackle climate change.

Underpinning this transformation are changes in lifestyle and consumption patterns, along with solid support for effective legal and policy frameworks.

In 2022, nations meeting at the United Nations Environment Assembly agreed to end plastic pollution and to forge an international legally binding agreement by the end of 2024.

The instrument, entitled “End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument” is expected to follow a comprehensive approach that addresses the full life cycle of plastics, including its production, design and disposal.

The contributors toward greenhouse gas pollution are spread across the plastic life cycle, from the sourcing of raw materials, plastics production, use and waste management.

Presently, 99% of raw materials needed to produce plastics are fossil-fuel based. Only 1-1.5% of plastics produced in the world are bio-based, i.e. derived from biomass such as corn, sugarcane or wheat. And less than 10% of the world’s plastic is recycled.

Experts agree that both decarbonizing plastic production and ensuring the plastics life-cycle is circular are key solutions to the problem.

This means reducing the use of plastics, reusing what is produced and recycling what cannot be reused, along with developing alternatives to plastics.