‘Coalition of the Unwilling’: Plastics treaty talks seen at risk of stalling amid fossil fuel lobbying

Negotiations over a global treaty to tackle plastic pollution ended in an apparent deadlock last week, with green groups blaming fossil fuel producing countries for holding up an ambitious agreement by pushing for a voluntary approach and favouring recycling over reduced production.

The third session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) on the planned UN Global Agreement on Plastics Pollution was held in Nairobi last week.

However, members of a newly formed ‘Global Coalition for Plastics Sustainability’ - announced by Iran during a preparatory meeting on 11 November and including Saudi Arabia, Russia, Cuba, China and Bahrain - called for a waste management focused and “bottom up” approach allowing countries to set their own targets and policies. 

READ MORE: What would a Global Plastics Treaty actually look like?

This came despite the vast majority of UN countries calling for a far more ambitious treaty that covers all parts of the life cycle of plastics, according to Caroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). 

“That treaty is still achievable in these talks, but only if negotiators acknowledge and confront the coordinated campaign by fossil fuel and petrochemical exporters to prevent real progress of any kind.” Muffet said. 

Jacob Kean-Hammerson, ocean campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, described the formation of the Global Coalition for Plastics Sustainability as a “highly concerning move”. 

“Prominent plastic producing countries have formed a ‘Coalition of the Unwilling’ and are coordinating efforts to prevent progress by pushing focus on preventing controls on production. We cannot afford to waste any more time, and ambitious countries must take the charge in shutting down these attempts to weaken the Treaty", he said. 

City to Sea’s policy manager, Steve Hynd highlighted that the talks saw “more petrochemical lobbyists than negotiators”, adding that it is therefore “little surprise then to see the same tactics of delay and distraction that we see at climate change COP summits”. 

Recent analysis from the CIEL found that 143 fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists had registered to attend the third session of the INC-3. These lobbyists outnumbered the 70 smallest member states delegations at the negotiations, the group said. 

Graham Forbes, Greenpeace’s head of delegation to the treaty negotiations, said: “We need to find a way forward without oil and gas producers dictating the terms of our survival. We have one year to turn this around, and to ensure that we are celebrating our collective success instead of dooming ourselves to a dark and dangerous future. 

“This failure must be a wake-up call for governments representing the billions of people on this planet who are affected by plastic pollution.  When the negotiations resume in Canada in April 2024, our leaders must be ready to show a level of courage and leadership we have yet to see.”

With no formal plans to advance work on the treaty between now and the next round of talks (INC-4) due to open on Ottawa on 21 April, the WWF has called on governments to “take the process in their own hands by advancing information gathering and sharing” over the intervening five months, to “ensure that the process does not stagnate”.

Steve Hynd added that “despite the vested interests and fossil fuel lobbyists, there is still hope”, with some of the positive measures outlined in the zero draft “still on the table”. 

"We’re hopeful that we will still see a Global Plastics Treaty that includes commitments to cap and reduce plastic use, and ambitious and legally binding reusable targets to ensure a just and fair transition”, he said. 

Inger Andersen, head of the UN Environment Programme, also said that despite the setback, negotiators would “continue to be ambitious, innovative, inclusive, and bold” and use the talks “to hone a sharp and effective instrument we can use to carve out a better future”.

A version of this story was first published by ENDS Report’s sister title ENDS Europe.