Countries Should Tackle Pollution at Its Source at UNEA-3

From November 27 to December 6 in Nairobi, Kenya, the CIEL team will participate in the third meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-3). UNEA, the main governing body of the United Nations Environment Programme, is the highest political forum on environmental matters, involving all 193 Member States of the UN, as well as observer states and stakeholders such as CIEL. Parties have already begun to gather to discuss issues surrounding this year’s theme: “Towards a Pollution-Free Planet.”

You probably already know that our oceans are full of plastic. But did you know that if we do not take urgent action, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050?

Plastic is a pollutant of unique concern because it does not break down quickly. Instead, it accumulates in the environment, threatening marine life and entering every level of the food chain. With the plastics crisis worsening, the issue has reached the world stage. At UNEA-3, world leaders will consider a draft resolution on marine litter and microplastics. This resolution mainly focuses on how to manage plastic waste so that it doesn’t end up in the ocean. But why is there so much plastic in the first place? Where does it come from?

Virtually all plastic is derived from fossil fuels. But not only are plastic and fossil fuels made from the same materials; they are made by the same companies. The fracking boom and the availability of cheap shale gas has fueled massive investments in the plastic industry. In the US alone, companies have planned investments of $164 billion in new or expanded plastic facilities. As a result of these investments and the lack of pollution reduction targets, production capacity for two of the most important plastic feedstocks is expected to grow by 33% or more in the next decade.

If they move forward, these new investments will lock in plastic production for decades.

So, what good is making sure plastic waste is correctly managed if there will only be more and more of it?

The scientific community first became aware of the problem of ocean plastic pollution in the 1950s, shortly after plastic came into production. Awareness of the problem has continued to grow ever since. And yet, the crisis of plastic pollution has continued to worsen — even as communities all over the world promote plastic reuse and recycling and implement measures such as plastic-bag bans.

But stopgap measures are not enough. Current initiatives to tackle plastic pollution focus on the symptoms but not the root of the problem.

To really make a difference, we must tackle plastic at every stage of its lifecycle — not just when it reaches the ocean but also at its production. Coordinating with a large coalition of NGOs and in collaboration with #BreakFreeFromPlastic, CIEL is actively working to change the frame of the discussion. This coalition has called for a new global agreement focused specifically on plastics and plastic pollution. Among other measures, such an agreement could set global reduction targets for production and consumption of plastics.

And there’s hope: The resolution on marine litter and microplastics could establish a Working Group that aims to strengthen and harmonize existing strategies to stop the plastic crisis. If the Working Group were adopted, it could even go as far as creating a legally binding treaty on plastic production.

Other things to watch for during UNEA-3

Environment and Health Draft Resolution

Our health is deeply dependent on the environment in which we live. This connection is already acknowledged by multiple UN resolutions, each targeting a specific area, such as air, soil, or water.

But at UNEA-3, States will consider adopting a cross-cutting resolution to address the broader linkages between environment and health. The resolution aims to bring States closer to meeting the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, whose purpose is to end poverty, address social needs, and protect the planet.

The resolution tackles issues such as sustainable consumption and production, antimicrobial resistance, biodiversity, chemicals – such as endocrine disruptors and pesticides, and chemical waste. However, States should continue to add more concrete commitments on sound management of chemicals, human rights, public information and participation rights, and the polluter pays principle.

“A Political Declaration on Pollution”

The work of international bodies like the UN can seem distant from the daily lives of people who are not involved. How does the UN’s work affect the lives and livelihoods of everyday people?

UNEA-3 President Dr. Edgar Gutiérrez-Espeleta wanted to communicate UNEA’s work to the people, not only to UN bureaucrats. To do so, he started the process of drafting a joint declaration from all the ministers of environment in the world. State representatives and stakeholders have met and commented on the successive drafts. (Read CIEL’s comments on 1st (“Zero”) and 2nd Draft (“Preliminary”).)

Although the intent is good, key issues — such as the polluter pays principle, corporate responsibility, or the precautionary approach to risks about which scientific understanding is incomplete — haven’t made it into the latest version. As States, civil society, and other stakeholders continue to engage in the process, we hope that the language will change to reflect these important principles.

These elements are just a few of the many common environmental challenges we face. The UN may be slow and less efficient than we would like it to be. But the UNEA process still offers the possibility to make change on a global scale, on some of the most pressing issues facing people and our planet. CIEL will continue to seize the opportunity to make our voice heard among States and other stakeholders at this year’s meeting.

By Olivia Chollet, Geneva-based intern

Originally posted December 1, 2017