President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in California this week in their first meeting in person in over a year. The two countries released a joint climate statement this week and committed to work together more closely to fight climate change.
World leaders are also gathering this week in Nairobi, Kenya, at the United Nation’s Third Session (INC-3) to craft an ambitious Global Plastics Treaty to end plastic pollution. This is a huge opportunity to show the world what the U.S. and China can do to address climate change, phase out fossil fuels, and end all forms of plastic pollution in every stage of the life cycle.
This week’s statement reaffirmed their commitment to address climate change, and to end plastic pollution and work together and with others to develop an internationally legally binding instrument. On both climate and plastics, it is critical that the U.S. and China work with the rest of the world.
Scientists, including myself, have demonstrated the connection between unsustainable production and consumption of plastics and the climate crisis. Plastics are a fully integrated link of the fossil fuel value chain—99% of plastics are derived from fossil fuels, primarily oil and gas fractions—as well as a core and growing business of many of the largest fossil fuel firms. This has in recent years led to a deeper fossil fuel lock-in for plastics. Plastics are associated with around 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and this share is expected to grow rapidly in the coming decades if projections for continued growth of plastic production materialize.
Of particular concern is the rapid growth of plastic production in countries and regions with energy systems and plastic feedstocks that use coal, leading to GHG emissions from plastics production growing at a higher rate than production itself. Plastic producers have very limited targets and programs for reducing their GHG emissions such as through renewable energy. And necessary long-term targets for eliminating the use of fossil fuel feedstocks are completely absent. So far international climate policy has largely ignored the need to phase out fossil fuels for both energy and plastic feedstocks.
It is clear that one of the most effective ways of mitigating climate change impacts as well as all other forms of pollution associated with plastics is to restrict future production. This has been identified by scientists as a central goal for the Global Plastics Treaty and is one of the key requirements for the treaty emphasized by the global Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty.
Civil society organizations and business leaders from around the world agree, and have rallied around a call for a treaty that prioritizes production reduction. And they have pointed out that the treaty is too focused on downstream measures which will be inadequate for meeting the challenge.
With China and the U.S. taking steps towards a more internationally harmonized agenda on climate change mitigation, we would expect these leading plastic producer countries to also show leadership in relation to plastics. The ongoing negotiations for the plastics treaty are a unique opportunity to show how the ambitious targets for net-zero emissions set by U.S. and China can be translated to an effective international agreement focusing on one of the most emissions-intensive industries.
It is imperative, for the climate as well as both terrestrial and marine ecosystems, that the plastics treaty addresses the full life cycle of plastics through measures and interventions in production, consumption, and end-of-life management.
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