Posted by on May 25, 2023 3:06 pm
Categories: News The Hill

Biden is missing an opportunity to lead on a global plastics treaty

With the second round of negotiations on a global plastics treaty set to take place in Paris later this month, the world has a golden opportunity to confront the plastic pollution crisis, which is not only driving the climate emergency but also threatening public health and wildlife worldwide. 

Given the Biden administration’s claims of global climate leadership, you’d think the U.S. would be leading from the front in these negotiations. Think again. 

In fact, the administration’s current posture on the most salient issues has put it in the same negotiating camp as Saudi Arabia and Russia. For example, the United States is supporting a weak treaty framework — similar to the Paris Agreement — with few binding obligations and control measures. They’re also refusing to directly address the production of plastics before they enter the supply chain. This is great news for fossil fuel and petrochemical companies.

After all, those companies are heavily ramping up plastic production as fossil fuels fall out of fashion for the transportation and energy sectors. Left unchecked, researchers at the International Energy Agency have projected that, by 2050, half of oil demand worldwide will be driven by plastics. And given that 90 percent of greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastics come during their conversion from fossil fuels, continued plastic production at this scale will almost guarantee that the planet surpasses the 1.5° Celsius warming threshold.

Therefore, a strong plastics treaty is our best hope for curbing plastic production and reducing its climate impact — but only if it has teeth. Thankfully, there is still time for the Biden team to do the right thing and change its position. Here’s why it should.

First, a treaty with legally binding obligations and control measures will ensure a greater chance of reaching our climate goals. It is well-documented that the lack of such measures in the Paris Agreement led to mediocre implementation and compliance. Compare this to the success of previous treaties with legally binding obligations and control measures, like the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer

Recently, a United Nations-backed panel of experts found that the Montreal treaty put Earth’s ozone layer on track toward recovery in the coming decades. The Biden team should avoid the pitfalls of Paris and learn from the successes of Montreal by advocating for legally-binding obligations and measures — even if Congress will need to pass additional legislation to get the job done.

Second, a treaty that addresses the full life cycle of plastics will slow down and reduce the production of plastics. After all, there is broad consensus that current production levels are unsustainable. We simply cannot “waste manage” our way out of this mess — we have to turn off the faucet on plastics. The administration should push for an internationally agreed-upon freeze on production, followed by a managed phase-down to sustainable levels. These supply-reducing measures on production, coupled with measures on product design and waste management, will set us on a path toward a circular plastics economy.

Both these issues and much more will be discussed at length in Paris, and the world will be listening closely to find out whether the U.S. is throwing its hat in the ring or its hands in the air.

If they choose the latter, the administration will also fail to protect the health of vulnerable communities. After all, researchers have found that the Black community and other communities of color are disproportionately impacted by plastic pollution. Let’s also not forget that Biden would have never won in 2020 without the support of Black Americans. So as he asks for another four years, he’d be well-served by leaning into an issue impacting one of his most loyal constituencies.

The lobbying effort of the fossil fuel industry may be playing a role in dissuading the administration from taking a more forward-leaning approach. However, the administration has something you almost never find in Washington — favorable public opinion and bipartisan support on curbing plastics.

An Ipsos poll from earlier this year found that three-quarters of Americans are concerned about plastic pollution — with an eye-popping 71 percent supporting a pause in allowing new plastic production facilities to be built. In addition, 72 percent agreed that companies should stop producing and using so much single-use plastic. That tells us that the American people are on the side of environmental progress, not the fossil fuel and petrochemical lobbyists. 

As for Congress, we know the administration wouldn’t want to fight hard for a treaty only to be struck down later. However, regulations on plastics have captured the attention of Democrats and Republicans alike. In fact, even in this political climate, we’ve seen prominent Republican senators like Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) successfully champion bipartisan legislation to combat ocean plastic pollution.

My colleagues and I from the Environmental Investigation Agency will be in Paris later this month for the next round of negotiations. We’ll be watching — as will the rest of the world — to see whether the United States will change course. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Biden to lead the way toward a global solution on plastics.

If he doesn’t, we may miss our last best chance for a global plastics solution. 

Tim Grabiel is senior lawyer and policy advisor at the Environmental Investigation Agency.

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