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The New GPT- Global Plastics Treaty

In Focus: The New GPT- Global Plastics Treaty 

By Swapneel Thakur

Source: The United Nations

As 2500 delegates concluded negotiations last month in Ottawa, Canada, the path towards the global adoption of a binding agreement on global plastic pollution became even clearer.

Plastics, known for their versatility, moldability, and durability, have seen widespread use across various sectors such as healthcare, technology, food preservation, and even space exploration. Despite their utility, the excessive presence of plastics in the environment now pose a significant challenge for both humanity and the planet.

Its production relies heavily on unsustainable fossil fuel extraction and contributes significantly to the natural environment when discarded improperly. With over 460 million tonnes of plastics produced annually, only 9% of it is recycled while the rest either enter landfills or escape into the ocean. This pervades the natural environment and enters food chains, causing significant negative effects to humans, plants and animals. At a time, when climate change and sustainable development are becoming priority action items across different spheres of policy making, a unified agenda on global plastics pollution was still missing.

The Global Plastics Treaty, initiated by the UNEA in 2022, was a significant step in this process to address various facets of the plastic pollution crisis across the world. With its scheduled adoption by November 2024 in Busan, South Korea, delegates from different countries have been negotiating its actionable clauses across many sessions over the past two years.

Experts suggest that the treaty is a massive breakthrough in crucial aspects such as the lifecycle of plastics, the design of reusable and recyclable products & materials, etc. Further to this, it addresses the need for enhanced international collaboration to facilitate access to technology, capacity building, and scientific & technical cooperation. As envisioned, the treaty will retain coherence and complementarity with existing global standards regulating plastic pollution such as Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, Convention on Biological Diversity and Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic ASIL Insights, Pollutants.

However, amidst ongoing discussions, distinct factions have emerged, reflecting differing perspectives on how to address plastic pollution.

The debate over production limits

On one side, a coalition of plastic and petrochemical-producing nations, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China, known as the Like-Minded Countries, has opposed the inclusion of production limits in the treaty. A production limit may significantly affect their economic interests and national development agendas, given their heavy reliance on plastic production and petrochemical industries. For these countries, plastic production represents a crucial source of revenue, employment, and economic growth. Any imposition of production limits could potentially hinder their ability to meet domestic demand, export obligations, and developmental goals.

In contrast, the High-Ambition Coalition, comprising 60 nations such as EU member states, island nations, and Japan, is advocating for ambitious measures to eliminate plastic pollution by 2040. Supported by various environmental groups, this coalition is pushing for binding provisions aimed at curbing both the production and consumption of primary plastic polymers to sustainable levels. Additionally, they propose initiatives such as phasing out problematic single-use plastics and prohibiting certain chemical additives with potential health risks.

In this regard, India has argued against imposing binding targets or caps on plastic polymer production, while also calling for any stated obligations to be directly linked with the availability of adequate financial and  technical resources. While quoting  principles of “common but differentiated responsibilities” it has written in its submission to the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee that “countries have different levels of development, unique circumstances, and differential contribution to the plastic pollution that the world faces today, in all its gravity”.

Indian obligations

While India has made significant progress in this arena, with the recent adoption of Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules (2021) that banned 19 categories of ‘single use’ plastics, its position comes from the indispensable roles plastic plays in its economy. For instance, plastics account for approximately 2% of the total GDP,  employing over 4 million people directly.

The country’s plastics industry experienced robust growth in recent years, fueled by a growing demand from various sectors such as packaging, automotive, construction, and consumer goods. For instance, the packaging sector alone accounts for nearly 40% of total plastic consumption in India, driven by the rapid expansion of the e-commerce industry, urbanization, and changing consumer preferences.

Any abrupt disruption to plastic production, such as a blanket ban, would have profound economic ramifications for India. Such a move could jeopardize the livelihoods of millions of workers employed in the plastics industry and its ancillary sectors, leading to widespread unemployment and economic distress, particularly in regions where the industry is concentrated.

Moreover, India’s reliance on plastics extends beyond domestic consumption, as it is a significant contributor to the export markets. India is a major exporter of plastic products to various countries worldwide, contributing to foreign exchange earnings and trade balances. According to the data from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, India’s plastic exports amounted to approximately $8.8 billion in the fiscal year 2020-21, which highlights its importance to the country’s external trade. In light of these considerations, India’s policy is naturally calibrated to minimize adverse economic impacts while promoting sustainable development and environmental stewardship.

Charting the steps ahead

As we anticipate outcomes from the upcoming sessions of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), India must assume a leadership role and seek consensus with High Ambition Countries. While India has voiced its opposition to unjust trade restrictions during GPT negotiations, the treaty’s potential imposition of production limits could impact the acceptability of Indian products in these nations. This could diminish current exports and complicate ongoing FTA negotiations. Finding common ground is crucial to navigate these challenges, ensure India’s continued economic growth, and progression of its international trade relationships.

Concurrently, an entrepreneurial focus and exchange of technology holds crucial for developing a robust supply of alternative products not just in India, but many developing countries to reduce reliance on plastics and provide a variety of employment opportunities. As a country that has already achieved two out of three Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement, India can also seek to establish a similar structure within the Global Plastics Treaty. This would give itself and many countries the much needed time, and a reporting system to the international community, which could help ensure an inclusive awareness towards efforts being taken to reduce plastic reliance across the world.  

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