Bridge to Busan: The ultimate session in Busan needs to reflect ambition - Hindustan Times

Bridge to Busan: The ultimate session in Busan needs to reflect ambition

Jun 11, 2024 12:13 AM IST

The global plastics treaty requires significant ambition to meet its intended goals, but the path to Busan is fraught with challenges

The prominence of ‘plastic’, a material that was once invented for convenience and utility, has now shifted from innovation to pollution, as plastic waste due to its transboundary nature floods our oceans and water bodies, fills landfills and litters public spaces, creating a significant environmental challenge known as plastic pollution.

The prominence of ‘plastic’, a material that was once invented for convenience and utility, has now shifted from innovation to pollution (pic for representation) PREMIUM
The prominence of ‘plastic’, a material that was once invented for convenience and utility, has now shifted from innovation to pollution (pic for representation)

Most people don't realise the environmental cost of discarding a single plastic item. That piece of plastic can travel through cities, rivers, countries, and oceans, eventually ending up in the most remote locations on Earth such as Antarctica.

With an aim to address the global challenge of plastics pollution through a legally binding global treaty, the Fourth Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment concluded in April 2024, in Ottawa with a refined draft text.

The text included a detailed plan for intersessional work (expert meetings aimed at driving consensus on critical issues held between official INC sessions), leading up to the fifth session (INC-5) scheduled for November this year.

The first group is tasked with analysing potential financial sources and mechanisms to support the treaty's objectives. The second group will evaluate criteria and approaches concerning plastic pollution, chemicals in plastics, and the recyclability and reusability of plastic products. However, the decision to omit upstream measures from the inter-sessional work complicates the inclusion of extraction or production reduction strategies within the scope of the draft plastics treaty.

Recycling alone cannot solve the plastic pollution crisis. To effectively address this issue, it is crucial to explore and implement eco-friendly alternatives to plastic polymers. A major point of contention during the INC-4 negotiations was the reduction of plastic production, which posed a significant threat to the plastic industry's financial interests. Discussions around this issue highlighted the complex balance between environmental imperatives and economic realities.

Many member states emphasised focus on nationally determined measures on areas such as extended producer responsibility (EPR), problematic and avoidable plastic products, product design and performance, reduction, reuse, recycling, refilling, and repair of plastics and circularity approaches for plastic products.

Nations leading discussion on upstream solutions

Peru and Rwanda proposed a new initiative aiming to reduce the global use of primary plastic polymers by 40% by 2040, starting from 2025. This proposal received strong backing from several countries, including Malawi, the Philippines, and Fiji.

Concurrently, several countries announced the Bridge to Busan Declaration on Plastic Polymers, which seeks to ensure that the issue of primary plastic polymers remains a core element of the treaty discussions.

The declaration calls on countries and stakeholders to commit to sustainable polymer production practices that align with the circular economy and the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius. It emphasises transparency, requiring signatories to report extensively on polymer production to fill data gaps, monitor progress, and guide policy decisions.

The declaration also establishes a global target for the sustainable management of polymer production, which could include setting production limits, reductions relative to agreed baselines, or other constraints to curb unsustainable production practices.

INC-4 also observed the launch of the coalition of subnational governments to end plastic pollution, stressing the need for robust measures to curtail plastic usage and enhance waste management systems, with a significant role to be played by local and subnational stakeholders.

‘Like-Minded’ lobby

The pro-plastic lobby's presence is growing stronger with each session of the INC. INC-4 also saw attempts by some polymer-and-plastic-producing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar including a pro-plastics industry lobby, to challenge and potentially dilute the scope of the draft treaty.

These countries advocated for a narrower interpretation of the treaty's coverage, focusing mainly on downstream interventions such as legacy plastics and waste management.

India at INC-4

India emphasised the importance of each country having control over its own environmental policies and regulations. New Delhi advocated for the idea that international actions or agreements related to plastic pollution should be aligned with and respect the existing legal and regulatory frameworks of individual countries, while stressing the need for handling chemicals and polymers already regulated under different conventions through transparent, scientifically-backed processes agreed upon by all parties, ensuring no overlap with other Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs).

For problematic and avoidable plastics, including single-use products and microplastics, India argued for pragmatic identification and regulation tailored to national circumstances, suggesting that any guidance should be based on scientific criteria.

EPR was highlighted as a key tool to address the lifecycle of plastic products, emphasising that such mechanisms should be nationally driven and confined within national boundaries without extending to international supply chains.

India also underlined the importance of managing emissions and releases from plastics, advocating for national-driven measures that consider each country's capabilities and circumstances.

Waste management was described as a critical component, with a call for assessments of infrastructural needs and financial resources necessary for comprehensive management tailored to national conditions.

Run up to INC-5

As the process moves towards INC-5 in Busan, the challenge remains to consolidate the treaty text into a legally sound and effective instrument. Despite the extensive groundwork laid in Ottawa, the limited scope of the planned inter-sessional activities suggests that significant challenges still lie ahead in finalising the treaty by the end of the year.

The journey from the initial session in Punta del Este to the upcoming final session in Busan marks a crucial chapter in global environmental diplomacy. This period highlights the urgent need for a unified and decisive

response to plastic pollution, showcasing a collective ambition and commitment to curbing and ultimately eliminating this pressing environmental issue.

As of now, the Bridge to Busan is under construction and will require effort and all its might.

Swati Singh Sambyal is an international circular economy expert and is presently affiliated with GRID- Arendal.


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