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Sculpture of a crane discharging plastic (Ben Von Wong) at the entrance of the UNEP conference building in Nairobi. @ UNEP
Plastic pollution has quietly reached shocking proportions. It is found literally everywhere, from the North Pole to the South Pole and from the deep ocean floor to the highest mountain peak. Traces have even been found in the human body.
At current levels, 11 million metric tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean each year, and that is set to double by 2030 and triple by 2040. Without additional measures, 150 million metric tonnes of plastic will be floating in the oceans by 2025, and by 2050 it will weigh more than the fish! The situation on land is equally dramatic.
Foremost environmental agreement since Paris
But there is some excellent news: At the 5th session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), 175 countries agreed that a legally binding, far-reaching treaty to stop plastic pollution will be developed by 2024. Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said the agreement is ‘the most important international multilateral environmental deal since the Paris climate accord’.
The agreement is particularly far-reaching because it covers the entire life cycle of plastics: design, production and recycling, as well as management, reduction and prevention of waste. It covers all forms of plastic, including microplastics, and oversees every ecosystem from ocean to mainland. The agreement also recognises the need for enhanced international cooperation so that each country has access to technology and capacity.
The agreement will allow a shift to a fully-fledged circular economy to be initiated. This would cut the amount of plastic entering the oceans by 80% by 2040, while reducing production of plastic by 55% and saving governments over 63 billion euros. It would also create 700,000 jobs, especially in the global South. These include plastic collectors, for example.
But it would also benefit the fight against the climate crisis. An effective circular economy for plastics would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 25%! What is more, it can serve as a model for the much needed switch to circularity that other sectors also need to make: construction, transport and energy, to name a few.
The negotiation of the agreement was not without some resistance. The Belgian delegation – including a staff member of our Federal Public Service – pushed strongly to raise the level of ambition. The reporting of microplastics, the focus on the full life cycle as well as the approach as a circular economy were major points of contention for our country. Belgium will also continue to monitor the high level of ambition as a final treaty is developed by 2024!
Even more great results
The same summit produced some other great results. For example, an international team of scientists is being established to provide policy advice on responsible management of chemicals, waste and pollution. It will work in a similar way, then, to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). All 3 major environmental crises – climate, biodiversity and pollution – will then have their own scientific panel.
On top of that - at our country's initiative - came a series of commitments to soundly manage chemical substances and hazardous waste. Think about lead-acid batteries and persistent pharmaceutical pollutants.
The summit also formulated an unambiguous definition of 'nature-based solutions'. From now on, when countries or companies claim to use nature-based solutions, it will be possible to check exactly whether this is true. Such solutions will play a crucial role in the fight against climate disruption.