Mise à jour: 17 Apr 2024

As 99% of plastics are made from fossil feedstocks, plastic pollution is indubitably linked with climate change. This page is part of our Plastics and the Environment series, a set of online resources on the plastics crisis, its impact on people and the environment, and international cooperation to address this global problem. They include resources and news from organizations in Geneva and beyond, including UN-system organizations and other IOs, governmental authorities, civil society organizations, academic institutions and journals, and renowned newspapers.

The world is facing a plastics crisis. Plastic pollution is found all around the globe. Plastics are negatively affecting people and the environment at each stage of their lifecycle – extraction of fossil fuel, production, manufacturing, use, recycling, and disposal. The impacts are felt in a wide range of areas, including on biodiversity, climate change, human health and human rights. This page focuses on the strong links between plastics and climate change.

Plastics and the Fossil Industry

As 99% of plastics are created from fossil fuel feedstocks, plastic production is closed linked to the petrochemical industry. Petrochemicals are expected to become the largest driver of global oil demand growth from now through 2030. While the international community is striving to address climate change by moving away from fossil fuels in the energy and transportation sectors, plastics should not be forgotten, as they are tightly linked to the fossil industry.

Plastic’s Contribution to Climate Change

Plastics are threatening the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C, as greenhouse gases (GHG) are emitted throughout the plastic life cycle. Indeed, extraction, refining and manufacture of plastics are all carbon intensive activities. In 2015, CO2 and other GHGs emissions from plastic production reached 1.96 Gt of CO2e, for a cost of  $341 billion annually (Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health, 2023)  At the disposal stage, incineration of plastic waste releases significant GHG into the atmosphere, alongside toxic pollutants. Other disposal methods, including recycling, also come with their share of GHG emissions. The rapid global growth of the plastic industry, largely fueled by natural gas, undermines efforts to reduce carbon pollution and prevent a climate catastrophe. Estimates indicate that GHG emissions from plastics could reach about 13% of the entire remaining carbon budget by 2050 (CIEL, 2019). Without a plastic cap, OECD projects GHG emissions from plastic  to increase to 4.3 Gt CO2e. Plastic in the oceans may also interfere with the oceans capacity to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide, thus creating another pathway through which plastic pollution contributes to accelerate climate change. Various ecosystems, such as the ocean and mountain areas, are particularly vulnerable to both climate change and plastic pollution, and the combination of both is a significant stress factor on biodiversity.

Estimated amounts of greenhouse gases released at each stage of the plastic life cycle (2019).

Estimated annual emissions from the plastics lifecycle by 2050. Source: CIEL, 2019.

Further resources on how plastics contribute to climate change:

Jointly Addressing Plastic Pollution and Climate Change

A comprehensive response to the threats of climate change includes consideration of the role of plastics in the carbon budget. Reducing the overall use of plastic and eliminate non-necessary plastics would thus help jointly tackle the climate and plastic pollution crises. As our planet is a highly interconnected system, one must also ensure that solutions to the plastic crisis do not have a negative impact on climate change. In that regard, the transformation of plastic waste into fuel, while sometimes presented as a solution to better manage plastic waste, fails to address climate change concerns. At the UN climate negotiations in Egypt in November 2022 (UNFCCC COP27), various actors are advocating for stronger recognition of the interlinkages between plastics and climate change and urgent action to reduce plastic production and address the impacts of plastic on climate.

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More on the Plastics Crisis

Our special series “Plastics and the Environment” provides resources on the status of the global plastic pollution, its impact on people and the environment, and international cooperation to address the plastics crisis.