The fourth round of negotiations of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) for the development of an international legally binding instrument (ILBI) on plastic pollution was held in Ottawa, Canada, from the 23rd to the 29th of April. For the first time, delegations began to share distinct positions on their expectations for the future agreement, which is expected to be approved in the fifth and final round of negotiations (INC-5) in Busan, Korea, from the 25th of November to the 1st of December 2024.

"Although the plastics talks began with high ambitions, it has become clear that a strong plastics treaty is by no means guaranteed," is how the Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) summarised the outcome of the negotiations. Most of INC-4 was in fact about streamlining the Revised Zero Draft, a nearly 70-page document published after INC-3 containing potential options for the ILBI, but what was reached was still a "complex and sprawling" text. The text was already riddled with brackets – indicating a text that had not been agreed upon – but during INC-4 another 2,000 brackets were added, resulting in a staggering total of 3,686 brackets to be resolved before agreement was reached.

Shortly before the end of the last plenary session, which ended at 3:17 a.m. on Tuesday the 30th of April, the EU delegation said it was "deeply concerned" that the remaining days of negotiations would not be sufficient to reach an agreement and suggested additional time for negotiations before INC-5. The Russian Federation, supported by Kuwait for the so-called group of like-minded countries (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bahrain, China, Cuba, and 'many others') stressed that it was 'not ready at this point' to make such a decision.

At the proposal of INC President Luis Vayas Valdivieso (Ecuador), it was decided that there would be intersessional work to clarify important topics to be included in the final text, such as the mobilisation of financial resources for the implementation of the treaty and criteria to identify problematic plastic products, harmful chemicals, and to promote circular design. However, Rwanda and Peru's proposal for intersessional work on reducing the production of primary plastic polymers (PPPs), although supported by some 55 delegations, was not retained.

"Once again we can see that ambition to deal with the most pressing issues for the success of this treaty (namely tackling head-on the unsustainable overproduction of plastic production) remains sorely lacking, with the like-minded group of countries effectively stalling meaningful discussion and ambition. We simply cannot negotiate an instrument that is not aligned with climate ambitions nor one that completely undermines any efforts towards a genuine and safe circular economy”, Chris Dixon, Campaign Manager for a global plastics treaty at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), told Renewable Matter.

Incompatibilities on key aspects of the treaty

The disagreements between states concern key aspects of what should be included in the ILBI. Starting with the purpose, i.e. the definition of what is meant by the "whole life cycle of plastics" (production, consumption, waste treatment or only the latter, focusing on recycling as the only solution?) and whether or not it should include a global obligation to reduce the production of primary plastic polymers. According to science, it is not possible to reduce plastic pollution without a reduction in the production of primary plastic polymers, but their production is at the heart of the economic interests of the petrochemical and fossil fuel industry, whose interests are defended by the group of like-minded countries – but also by the United States – which has blocked any meaningful discussion since the beginning of the negotiations and has worked to revise the ambitions of the future agreement downwards.

"In Busan, we need to see ambitious countries overcome the fear of disagreement that we saw in Ottawa", Daniela Durán González, Plastics Policy Specialist, and Senior Legal Campaigner at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) told Renewable Matter. "Some ambitious countries, such as the EU, expressed support for obligations to reduce polymer production, but this support did not translate into concrete positions to advance the topic during the intersessional period. In Ottawa, these countries compromised too soon, even before discussions began. We would like to see some ambitious countries change their strategy to aim high, defend ambition, and refrain from compromising among themselves for fear of disagreement with the like-minded countries that are happy to dilute ambition in this treaty to sustain plastic production."

In addition to whether global production obligations should be included, countries' opinions also diverge strongly on other fronts. Concerning problematic and avoidable plastics: there is no agreement on whether there is a uniform definition of problematic plastics; whether the proposed measures to address these products will be applied globally or only nationally; whether the proposed measures to address these products will be voluntary or mandatory. In practice, whether the ILBI should have a top-down approach as in the Minamata Convention on Mercury or a bottom-up approach as in the Paris Agreement.

As far as funding to operationalise the future agreement is concerned, countries' preferences vary from relying on the Global Environment Facility (GEF), building a new dedicated fund, or adopting a hybrid approach. Much more significant, however, was the lack of support for the proposal of a global plastic tax, which could have been a "tremendous income generator" and would have made the polluter-pays principle operational.

According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB), a bigger question is why Member States remain hesitant to impose fees on producers within their jurisdictions: "Increasing interest in international arbitration among foreign investors to settle disputes with governments that impose environmental regulations may offer some clues, especially as the number of industry lobbyists attending the INC process continues to grow”. Therefore, as pointed out by an experienced observer and reported by ENB, the extension of producer responsibility (EPR) to comply with an eventual plastics treaty may be contentious because investors are not going to want further restrictions on their activities.

An analysis conducted by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) found that over 196 lobbyists from the chemical and fossil fuel industries attended INC-4, which is 37% more than those who were present at INC-3. By comparison, there were 180 representatives from EU delegations, 73 from the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS), and 60 independent scientists from the Scientists' Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, out of a total of 2,500 participants.

Disinformation and intimidation of scientists

False information about the alleged lack of impact of plastic pollution on human health was circulated during the discussions. As reported by ENB, one delegate stressed that there is “no direct linkage between plastic pollution and health”, while some delegations claimed that the evidence base of health aspects of plastic pollution “is not well developed”. Independent scientific studies have ascertained and quantified the disease burden and costs attributed to chemicals in plastics. Members of the Scientists' Coalition who participated in INC-4 also reported hearing various "curious claims" during the discussions regarding the presence of chemicals in plastic products (and their alleged harmlessness to human health). Claims contradicted by scientific evidence, as shown in one of the fact checks produced by the Scientists' Coalition.

“I heard that there’s no data on microplastics, which is verifiably false: 21,000 publications on micro and nanoplastics have been published,” Bethanie Carney Almroth, Professor of Ecotoxicology at the Swedish University of Gothenburg and co-coordinator of the Scientists' Coalition, told the Associated Press. The researcher explained how industry tactics ‒ including misinformation, data selection, and harassment of scientists  ‒ aim to hinder political action to tackle plastic pollution. She also reported to the UN that a lobbyist shouted in her face during a meeting. "It is extremely worrying to hear about intimidation and harassment of scientists by industry at INC-4. The Right to Science requires the protection of scientists. There should be zero tolerance for industry misconduct," said Marcos A Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on toxic substances and human rights.

Going beyond consensus

In preparation for INC-5, 31 countries signed the Bridge to Busan declaration in which they ask INC Member States to agree on a global target for sustainable production of primary plastic polymers (the European Union has not yet signed the declaration, but has said it will). Peru and Rwanda supported the 40x40 proposal, i.e. a 40% reduction in global primary plastic polymer production by 2040 compared to the 2025 level.

“We need to negotiate a global treaty that is fit for the purpose of ending this global crisis", Daniela Durán González told Renewable Matter. "To do that, we need to overcome the fact that some countries will do their best to stop ambition. That’s why adopting the Rules of Procedure with the possibility to vote will be critical and this will end up being the best incentive for consensus. Also, a treaty that is fit for purpose is one that these countries cannot and will not ratify. That’s why we need measures to regulate the global trading system, including measures to regulate trade between Parties and non-Parties of the agreement, to ensure the efficacy of the provisions and to create a strong incentive for everyone to sign and ratify once it is in operation,” 

Disagreement over how to make decisions, by consensus or by majority vote, has accompanied the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) since it began its work in 2022, and the Rules of Procedure of INC have not yet been agreed upon. Until INC-4, in fact, it was by consensus, allowing less ambitious countries (the group of like-minded countries but also the United States) to use the veto to block any ambitious proposal to limit plastic pollution that went against the interests of their domestic petrochemical industries.

"In terms of the nature of the eventual agreement, we must act on the basis of assuming universal ratification, but also ensure that we're embedding non-Party trade provisions and other measures that will both incentivise ratification, but also ensure that the instrument can be effective without global ratification", Chris Dixon told Renewable Matter. "Importantly though, we cannot let those countries who are highly unlikely to ratify the treaty water it down the lowest common denominator and instead focus on a strong and comprehensive binding instrument with adequate financing to support a just transition."

Examples of international agreements that are successful even without global ratification are the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal and the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention.


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