20 Mar 2024
14:00–15:30

Lieu: Online | Webex

Organisation: GRID-Arendal, Geneva Environment Network

This event, launching a new report "Climate Impacts of Plastics: Global Actions to Stem Climate Change and End Plastic Pollution" by GRID-Arendal, is organized within the framework of the Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues. This session shed light on the interlinkages between plastics and the triple planetary crisis and provided a platform for stakeholders to discuss how a plastics treaty can deliver co-benefits to end plastic pollution and stem climate change.

About this Session

This event will launch a new report “Climate Impacts of Plastics: Global Actions to Stem Climate Change and End Plastic Pollution“, by GRID-Arendal.

Science provides strong evidence of the climate impacts generated across the full life cycle of plastics. Greenhouse gases are emitted throughout the entire life cycle of plastics, estimated as between 3.8 and 4.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is set to grow with a projected increase in primary plastic production. The development of the international legally binding instrument to end plastic pollution provides a unique opportunity to strengthen global efforts in addressing climate change across the plastics life cycle.

The report seeks to identify options for measures and strengthen governmental accountability in addressing the climate impacts of plastics. It aims to maximize the climate benefits of the plastics instrument, clearly delineating responsibilities in conjunction with the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.

In the intersessional period in the run-up to the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution (INC-4) that will take place from 23 to 29 April 2024 in Ottawa, Canada, this event, organized within the framework of the Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues, shed light on the interlinkages between plastics and the triple planetary crisis and provide a platform for stakeholders to discuss how a plastics treaty can deliver co-benefits to end plastic pollution and stem climate change.

Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues

The world is facing a plastic crisis, the status quo is not an option. Plastic pollution is a serious issue of global concern which requires an urgent and international response involving all relevant actors at different levels. Many initiatives, projects and governance responses and options have been developed to tackle this major environmental problem, but we are still unable to cope with the amount of plastic we generate. In addition, there is a lack of coordination which can better lead to a more effective and efficient response.

Various actors in Geneva are engaged in rethinking the way we manufacture, use, trade and manage plastics. The Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues aim at outreaching and creating synergies among these actors, highlighting efforts made by intergovernmental organizations, governments, businesses, the scientific community, civil society and individuals in the hope of informing and creating synergies and coordinated actions. The dialogues highlight what the different stakeholders in Geneva and beyond have achieved at all levels, present the latest research and governance options.

Following the landmark resolution adopted at UNEA-5 to end plastic pollution and building on the outcomes of the first two series, the third series of dialogues will encourage increased engagement of the Geneva community with future negotiations on the matter.

Speakers

By order of intervention.

H.E. Amb. Luke DAUNIVALU

Permanent Representative of Fiji to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva

Natalia SKRIPNIKOVA

Expert, Transboundary Governance and Environmental Crime, GRID-Arendal

Eirin HUSABØ

Associate Expert, Waste and Marine Litter, GRID-Arendal

Karen RAUBENHEIMER

Lecturer at Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong

Karl HOLMBERG

STEPS - Sustainable Plastics and Transition Pathways, Lund University

Max MOHAMMADI

Founder, CTO and ChairmanFounder, PlasticFri

Daniela DURAN

Senior Legal Campaigner, Upstream Plastics Treaty, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)

Richard THOMPSON

Professor of Marine Biology, Director of the University of Plymouth’s Marine Institute | Scientists’ Coalition

Kartik VERMA

Plastic Action Facilitator, Children and Youth Major Group (CYMG)

Lena ESTRADA

Indigenous Peoples Representative, Major Groups Facilitating Committee of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Carolyn DEERE BIRKBECK

Executive Director, Forum on Trade, Environment & SDGs (TESS) | Moderator

Summary

H.E. Amb. Luke DAUNIVALU | Permanent Representative of Fiji to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva

  • The scourge of the plastic problem in the ocean, environment, and health has been largely witnessed by everyone.
  • This report casts a revealing light on the symbiosis between the global fight against climate change and the imperative to decarbonize plastic production, whose life cycle consumes substantial fossil fuel resources.
  • Grounded in rigorous scientific inquiry, the report illuminates a stark reality: gases spewed from the entire plastic life cycle contribute an estimated 3.8% to 4.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions. It calls each of us to be vanguard and to step up our collective efforts in the campaign mission to eliminate plastic pollution. It demands a comprehensive strategy that embraces the full spectrum of plastic life.
  • Fiji has been actively addressing the topic, for instance, raising its voice in the World Trade Organization dialogues on fossil fuel subsidy reform and the discourse on plastic pollution. These initiatives are the vanguards in the battle to integrate the trade aspects of plastic pollution and climate change into the global agenda.
  • The recent 13th WTO Ministerial Conference saw the emergence of commitments to these discourses:
    • Delineating the most harmful subsidies exposing their environmental and trade detriment while raising support for their reforms and eventual eradication;
    • Reducing the tide of environmentally detrimental, health hazardous, or unnecessary single-use plastics and packaging.
  • Fiji is involved in the intergovernmental negotiating committee’s (INC) endeavor to forge an international legally binding instrument to combat plastic pollution. The Plastic Treaty negotiations, climate change negotiations and the WTO Fisheries negotiations share the pervasive reliance on fossil fuels, which while fueling our productive capacities inflicts devastating and lasting harm upon the planet.
  • To inspire positive outcomes at INC, we must build an instrument with a profound grasp of the plastic life cycle and its activities. While much of the negotiations are driven by theoretical knowledge, the knowledge and understanding required to make real impact  must be grounded in how the plastics lifecycle is understood in the national and regional contexts.
  • The report underlines the absence of universally endorsed definitions and harmonized terminology, which pose significant difficulties in pinpointing and articulating strategies, for mitigating the climate impacts of plastics.
  • The convergence point between INC, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the WTO committee on trade and environment processes demands unequivocal definitions, measures and actions.
  • Clarity is essential to foster a shared understanding of the intricate interplay between plastic pollution, climate change and the interventions required for their amelioration.

Presentation of the Report

Natalia SKRIPNIKOVA | Expert, Transboundary Governance and Environmental Crime, GRID-Arendal, Eirin HUSABØ | Associate Expert, Waste and Marine Litter, GRID-Arendal, Karen RAUBENHEIMER | Lecturer at Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong

  • The report aims to identify options for measures and strengthen governmental accountability in addressing the climate impacts of plastics. This comprised three main objectives:
  1. Identify existing plastics climate efforts and provide additional options strengthening the accountability of governments to address plastic pollution and climate change at the global level;
  2. Provide measures that could contribute to maximizing climate benefits through the global Plastics instrument; and
  3. Improve institutional capacity to jointly minimize the effects on climate change across the plastics life cycle at national and global levels, including relevant multilateral environmental agreements and the United Nations entities.
  • The report relies on extensive literature review and on an empirical study that analyses the report submitted by UNFCCC parties,  member States’ written submissions before the plastic pollution INC-3 and official documents prepared by the INC Secretariat. This aimed to identify available data on greenhouse gas emissions from plastics and MEA’s obligations related to the impacts of plastics on climate change.

Technical Foundation

  • Exploring impacts on climate change through various stages of the plastic life cycle – sourcing of raw materials,  production of plastics; plastics use and reuse and waste management – and looking at plastic pollution in the environment, this section synthesizes the latest available scientific evidence of GHG drivers.
  • In 2015, the plastic lifecycle was estimated to collectively contribute to about 2 gigatons of CO2 equivalence or 4% of global GHG emissions. This number excludes multiple activities, such as GHG leakages from sourcing materials and GHG emissions from the plastic use stage.
  • As plastic production numbers continuously grow and with plastic currently being the fastest growing material in the global economy, these numbers are expected to and have most likely already increased.

 

  • The study also tried to separate between emissions that can be directly or indirectly attributed to plastics. This would allow for greater clarification on which control measures would fall under the plastics treaty and which should be strengthened under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.
  • Of the 94% of emissions resulting from sourcing and production stages combined, 41% of emissions are directly related to plastics whereas 59% of emissions was related to electricity, generation fossil fuel extraction, transport and other operational activities. There is an opportunity to focus on climate change within the new plastics instrument.

  • Plastics sourcing, use and reuse | Sourcing of feedstocks account for approximately 9% of the total GHG emissions from the plastic life cycle.
    • The majority of plastics – 90% – is derived from fossil-based, thus feedstocks emissions in this stage are mostly linked to oil and gas production and coal mining, both associated with significant GHG emissions including CO2, methane and nitrogen oxide.
    • Current estimates of methane emissions from these industries are likely underestimated by 25 to 40%. The production stage of plastic accounts for approximately 85% of GHG encompassing refining, cracking, polymerization, and conversion processes.
    • The refining of fossil fuels is a significant source of GHG emissions and constitutes about 40% of emissions from the oil and gas industry.
    • Extracted fossil fuels are converted and subjected to steam-cracking processes to transform them into monomers that serve as the primary chemicals in the plastic industry.
    • The conversion stage from monomers to finished polymers accounts for 30% of emissions from the plastic life cycle. These polymers are then mixed with a range of chemical compounds and additives designed to enhance their performance, and depending on the production methods GHG emissions will vary. Emissions are higher for complex polymers like polystyrene.
    • Plastic production heavily relies on fossil fuels for energy. Processes such as refining and cracking demand substantial energy. The chemical and petrochemical industries integral to plastic production utilize about 10% of global energy use, with significant oil and gas consumption representing 14% and 8% of global primary demand respectively.
    • The major driver of GHG emissions is associated with the increased combustion of coal for electricity and heat supply during plastic production. In 2015, 6% of global coal electricity was used for plastic production, contributing substantially to GHG emissions from this stage.
    • Many high-income countries rely on plastic production from coal-based economies in low-income regions.
    • Rapid economic growth has led to increased plastic consumption worldwide, with packaging dominating 36% of the global demand. Plastic packaging designed for short-term use has an average lifespan of less than a year and often comprises products that are difficult to recycle. Creating substitutes for single use can potentially only shift environmental issues and create new issues and product redesign is currently based on limited examples.
    • Using a high-density polyethylene bottle instead of a single-use pet bottle may reduce CO2 emissions by 65%. However around 30% of plastic packaging may never be reused or recycled without fundamental redesign. Although consumption patterns at the end user level through actions and purchasing habits are important to consider to reduce and reuse plastics, there is a lack of connections between governance forms, market structures materials and technology that contribute to feeding the strong carbon lockins of plastics.
  • Waste management including recycling, disposal, and incineration contributes to around 6% of overall emissions of the plastic life cycle. As greenhouse gases deriving from waste management does not account for open burning and mismanaged plastic waste, GHG emissions are likely higher.
    • Recycling is the most efficient waste management option. Plastic bottle recycling can cut emissions by 30% compared to landfilling and over 40% compared to incineration. Producing plastic bottles from recycled PET uses 1.7 times less energy than from primary polymers.
    • Waste incineration is the most emission-intensive waste management option. Emissions from open burning are not currently included in inventories despite their significant climate impact.
    • Countries increasingly move away from landfilling waste and toward substantial investment in waste incineration with energy generation. This transition commits to technology lock-ins that rely on long-term consistent flow of feedstocks including plastic waste.
  • Plastic Pollution in the Environment | Significant amount of plastic waste has accumulated in the environment. Microplastics have been found everywhere, including in mountains and polar regions, contributing to reduced snow and ice reflectivity which in turn accelerates climate effects.
    • Plastic degradation through processes such as photodegradation emits greenhouse gases like methane and ethylene.
    • Plastic pollution accelerates climate change through various feedback loops, affecting marine and terrestrial environments and atmospheric processes like cloud formation. While various studies explore these, feedback loops gap on the direct linkages between climate change and plastic pollution both in the marine and terrestrial environment persist.

Results of the Empirical Part

From the analysis, four main strategies to reduce GHG emissions relevant for plastics emerged:

  • From the analysis, it emerges that reducing GHG emissions relevant for plastics is only possible at a broader scale and encompasses the petrochemical and chemical industries.
  • National submissions lack the necessary level of detail and do not specify action to reduce GHG emissions in the plastic industry.

  • The coverage of plastic lifecycle varies in the report. The fragmented coverage in UNFCCC reports complicates the traceability of plastics’ contribution to climate change.
  • The coverage of energy used in plastic production constitutes a gap in the reporting, which prevents transparency and accountability of plastics’ impact on climate.

 

  • Sectors that are considered to be the major users or producers of plastics are underrepresented when it comes to their reporting on emissions associated with plastic. For example, textiles are known to be a major use of plastics, but the information in the reports is very limited.
  • Some countries are already reporting on plastics in the context of climate change, however, the lack of harmonized approaches and requirements on reporting of plastic climate implications prevents transparency of associated emissions.

Proposed measures for optimizing climate benefits across the Plastics life cycle and possible institutional collaboration

  • The research aims to separate control measures that fall under the mandate of the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement and those measures that would fall under the new Plastics instrument.

 

  • The plastics instrument must reduce the overall production of primary polymers, contributing to reducing associated greenhouse gas emissions. This can be achieved through measures currently in the draft agreement: reducing the use and demand of primary polymers by increasing the use of secondary plastics; phasing out problematic, unnecessary and avoidable plastic products; and promoting the transition to low carbon non-plastic substitutes.  This needs careful life cycle assessment to ensure net environmental benefits.
  • In the production stage, design criteria can support the choice of employing low-carbon feedstocks and using lower net energy polymers across all life cycle stages.  Design criteria can promote the use of polymers that are more suitable for reuse and refill systems and mechanical recycling and require minimizing or elimination of microplastic releases.
  • Designed criteria can help us to reduce the need for primary polymers in the first place.
  • The plastics instrument can help scale up business models for reuse, while avoid introducing new transport systems that could instead increase GHG emissions. It could promote reverse logistics or backloading while we transition to the transport sector to clean and renewable energy.
  • GHG emissions in the waste management stage can be reduced by limiting open burning and other forms of mismanagement of plastic waste. Product design can help reduce waste generation and create value for waste, favoring collection over burning. Little information is available on GHG emissions caused by open burning.
  • The plastics treaty could develop criteria and guidelines to support a life cycle assessment of waste management facilities towards;
    • investment in lower-emitting technologies;
    • avoiding lock-ins to high emitting and expensive technologies;
    • promoting offset of GHG emissions (least favored option);
    • for legacy plastics, a remediation approach can be fostered.
  • The UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement have the greatest potential to reduce GHG emissions associated with plastics by decarbonizing the plastics life cycle, particularly regarding substantial energy requirements for heat in the production, waste and transport.
  • The plastics instrument and the UNFCCC can collaborate to strengthen transparency and accountability by developing a framework under the plastics instrument to track climate-related measures and allow better disaggregation and reporting of plastic-related GHG emissions under the UNFCCC. This could:

  • Institutional collaboration between the Paris Agreement and the plastics instrument could be enhanced through:
    • Sharing data and information on plastic related GHG emissions and their sources with the Paris Agreement and plastics instrument;
    • Coordinating policies and measures among MEAs related to plastics with broader climate goals and targets;
    • Research, analysis, and assessment efforts to deepen understanding of the climate implications of plastics and identify mitigation opportunities;
    • Paris Agreement – decarbonize plastic life cycle;
    • Guidance for preparation of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and Long-term Low-emission Development Strategies (LT-LEDS)
    • Science-policy interface (SPI) for plastic pollution to deepen the understanding of how plastics intersect with climate change.

Summary

Panel Discussion

Karl HOLMBERG | STEPS – Sustainable Plastics and Transition Pathways, Lund University

  • For the production of the report Towards a Global Plastics Treaty: Tracing the UN Negotiations, member states submissions to the INC Secretariat ahead of INC-2 and INC-3 were analyzed.
  • In terms of treaty objectives, it is clear that more attention is given to biodiversity, human health, and plastic pollution compared to measures for reducing production. In terms of policies, the majority of suggested ones are soft policies, not linked to economic tight measures.
  • Proposed measures and policy suggestions are quite equally distributed among groups of members, while there is a substantial underrepresentation of measures on the upstream, which are the most connected to climate.
  • From the review and coding of 182 pre-session submissions and submissions by member states it is clear that more attention is given to waste management and recycling-related issues while relatively little attention is given to upstream climate and production-related measures.
  • This risk translates into an unbalanced focus around waste management and recycling while other parts of the value chain risk to become comparably neglected.

Max MOHAMMADI | Founder, CTO and ChairmanFounder, PlasticFri

  • To achieve a truly circular economy for plastics, it is important to increase the use of low-carbon non-plastic substitutes to avoid microplastics releases to the environment and beyond.
  • The report highlights links with the Paris Agreement and how to further reduce GHG emissions from the plastics sector, highlighting the need to unlock relevant finance for innovations.
  • PlasticFri represents an example of a company whose technology can be applied on a large scale. With the current pace of plastics production and use, plastic will outpace coal in driving climate change in the next five or six years, making such innovation a tool to work against this trend.
  • PlaticFri employs a breakthrough technology involving a process that eliminates toxic chemicals and works on existing machinery reducing costs. It uses renewable plant resources, including agricultural waste, nonedible plants, vegetable oils and wood fiber to create products that are circular. These products’ features match the requirements specified in the GRID-Arendal report, such as having a low carbon footprint and being biobased.
  • PlasticFri has invented a material that eliminates the plastic film that usually coats paper cups and which is nonetheless resistant.
  • The whole supply chain is built in Europe and manufacturing employs 100% renewable energy.
  • While competition is high in the market for plastics alternatives, PlasticFri has managed to overcome shortcomings and balance sustainability, price and performance, and prevents the release of any type of microplastics or other toxic chemicals to the environment and human health.
  • The health aspect of plastic is not discussed at the scale it should be. Research is now clear on the effects this has on the human body but action is not matching the pace of the urgency.
  • When reflecting on the climate impact of plastics it is also important to consider the amount of methane produced as it can be even more harmful than CO2 to the environment.

Daniela DURAN | Senior Legal Campaigner, Upstream Plastics Treaty, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)

  • While realizing that fossil fuels were the main drivers of climate change took almost 30 years, we do not have that amount of time to link plastics production to the climate crisis, therefore it is essential to learn from past mistakes and control, reduce and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions deriving from plastics production.
  • GHG emissions are plastic pollution. Plastics are already accounting for approximately 8% of GHG emissions and with the foreseen growth of production in the next few years, plastics will consume approximately 15% of the global carbon budget left to achieve the 1.5 C° target of the Paris Agreement.
  • Almost 90% of plastic-related GHG emissions occur during plastic production, the transformation of fossil fuels into plastic polymers. The climate impacts of plastics are under the scope of the future plastics treaty because UNEA resolution 5/14 is clear that the objectives of the future plastic treaty should be to end plastic pollution.
  • To achieve that objective, the treaty will have to incorporate obligations to address the climate impacts of plastics, meaning incorporating obligations on plastic production.
  • These climate impacts should be addressed by controlling and progressively reducing plastic production.
  • It is very challenging to decarbonize the production of plastics and scientific evidence shows that electrifying the process or changing fossil fuel feedstocks for biomass or relying on technologies that have proven not to be scalable or safe – like carbon capture and storage use – will not have benefits in terms of GHG emissions reductions. As it is not possible to decouple plastic production from fossil fuels and therefore to decouple plastics from significant climate impacts, it is necessary to reduce current levels of production.
  • A global target for reducing this impact can provide a common goal for action and serve as a benchmark to measure treaty progress. This must be coupled with a mechanism for the parties of the treaty to act at the national level to achieve such a global target.
  • The example of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer provides a model for progressive phase-down schedules that are more effective than the Paris Agreement’s Nationally Determined Contributions.
  • The exact level of reduction is still unclear as necessary science still needs to be developed but enough evidence indicates that production should be reduced to levels that are aligned with the 1.5 C° goal of the Paris Agreement.
  • As an impressive number of plants to produce plastics are projected to be constructed in the next 5 years, the plastics treaty should serve to halt plastic production growth. If this does not happen, by 2028 plastics will be the main driver of oil demand growth globally.

Richard THOMPSON | Professor of Marine Biology, Director of the University of Plymouth’s Marine Institute | Scientists’ Coalition

  • The goal of the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastic Treaty is centered around evidence-based decision-making to provide the best science to the achievement of the scope of UNEA Resolution 5/14. It is a voluntary network of 320 members from 53 nations, independent academics, and researchers who are approved via a conflict-of-interest policy to ensure that our science is independent and not conflicted.
  • The report clearly states that 85% of plastics GHG emissions are associated with production rather than the sourcing of the raw material. This implies that no matter the raw material, emissions will be driven by the production phase, thus this is what should be driven down.
  • It is nonetheless fundamental that the same safety and sustainability criteria applied to fossil-based plastics are applied also to alternatives and substitutes to avoid unintended consequences and ensure a full life cycle approach.
  • The report recognized GHG emissions associated with the end-of-life phase, coming from open-burning landfill incineration, including waste-to-energy transformations and we align with the option of reducing some of these GHG emissions by switching to alternative and more circular formats through reuse and circularity.
  • Non-plastic substitutes must be environmentally sound and have a lower footprint. To produce a full lifecycle analysis of these, the currently under negotiations Science-Policy Panel to contribute further to the sound management of chemicals and waste and to prevent pollution can play a critical role.
  • When moving from one material to another it is important to consider all aspects of its impact on the environment and people as something biobased is not automatically more biodegradable or safer.

Kartik VERMA | Plastic Action Facilitator, Children and Youth Major Group (CYMG)

  • During the preparation of the pre-submission to INC-2 and even INC-3, the Children and Youth Major Group (CYMG) held discussions on aspects to put forward, but the impact of plastics on climate change was not much reflected for a gap in the available science.
  • Nonetheless, the importance of this aspect and all the subjects treated in the report have been present in the CYMG work, including in a workshop organized in the context of the Youth Environment Assembly to discuss the INC process.
  • The report speaks to subjects our caucus deems of importance as transboundary waste management and alternative biobased plastics feedstocks and their various implications.
  • We push for more research and more concrete information for the entire negotiation process to be driven by scientific evidence.

Lena ESTRADA | Indigenous Peoples Representative, Major Groups Facilitating Committee of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

  • It is necessary to think and reflect on actions and policies that have led us to the current triple planetary crisis: the unresponsible use of fossil fuels, which are the raw material of plastics and the causes of the contamination of Mother Earth, the Amazon Rivers, lagoons, marine and high mountain ecosystems around the world.
  • It is important to remember that 99% of plastic comes from fossil fuels and these are extracted from indigenous territories.
  • The climatic impacts of plastics are affecting indigenous people’s territories. The treaty needs to address those impacts by reducing plastic production and providing sound scientific bases for bioplastic alternatives to avoid further leakage in the territories.
  •  Indigenous people’s knowledge systems are the key to solving the crisis, thus should be put at the same level of scientific knowledge in the plastic treaty.
  • The indigenous caucus has been active in the negotiations since INC-1 at the end of 2022 and is open to discussion both during negotiations and during the intersessional period, pursuing the mission of protecting indigenous people’s human rights and indigenous territory rights.
  • Participation of indigenous peoples must be increased through meaningful conversations with the INC and other MEAs negotiations.
  • The plastics treaty will be successful only if it addresses the plastic crisis from its origin: plastic production.
  • For the indigenous caucus, it is important to separate indigenous people and local communities in their references in the plastics treaty draft text. We are different groups with different rights and requests.
  • The text is currently lacking any mentions of indigenous people’s territories, which a prerequisite for their protection.

Closing Remarks

Karen RAUBENHEIMER

  1. We must reduce the production of primary polymers,
  2. We need to bring greenhouse gas emissions into the design criteria in all aspects of design,
  3. By including greenhouse gas emissions in any framework that we develop for indicators and targets, we can start tracking it and working towards its reduction.

Highlights

Video

Live on Webex.

Documents

Links