June 24, 2021

What does the Biden Administration want in a new global plastics treaty?

Posted on June 24, 2021 by Paul Hagen

The Communique from President Biden and other world leaders attending the G-7 Summit earlier this month is the latest high-level signal that governments may be moving closer to the launch of negotiations on a new global agreement to address marine plastic litter.  In a marked change from earlier U.S. positions, President Biden joined other G-7 leaders in agreeing to step up action to tackle increasing levels of plastic pollution in the ocean, including working through the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) on options including strengthening existing instruments and a potential new agreement or other instrument to address marine plastic litter, including at UNEA-5.2.  

Momentum toward coordinated global action on marine plastics pollution has been building for some time.  Policy initiatives underway within the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (Global Partnership on Marine Litter), the G-7 (Ocean Plastics Charter championed by Canada), and the G-20 (Action Plan on Marine Litter and implementation framework) reflect the scale of the challenge and a growing political consensus on needed legal and policy responses.  This year’s World Oceans Day on June 8 saw the release of the Oceans Day Plastics Pollution Declaration, supported by the Alliance of Small Island States, which calls for “development of a new legally binding global agreement on plastic pollution.” It has been endorsed by 74 countries.

Modern multilateral environmental agreements typically originate with a decision on a negotiating mandate from UNEA, the world’s highest level decision-making body on environmental matters.  UNEA has taken a series of decisions in recent years on marine plastic pollution, including establishing an ad hoc open-ended expert group on marine litter and microplastics (AHEG) with a mandate to assess the sources and hazards of plastic litter and microplastics; identify existing UN agencies, programmes and initiatives addressing plastics pollution; and analyze the effectiveness of existing and potential response options relating to such pollution.  AHEG completed its work last November and a final report from the AHEG-4 meeting captures the range of views on the need for and possible elements of a new global agreement.

Coming out of the AHEG meetings, many countries appear open to exploring a new agreement or framework that would include both legally binding and voluntary elements.  While support for a new global agreement is growing, the scope of such an agreement, its relationship to existing legal frameworks and initiatives, and the extent to which it will encourage voluntary actions or include legally binding commitments remains to be decided.  

The Nordic Council of Ministers for the Environment and Climate issued a report last year on a model treaty to further discussion of possible elements of a global agreement.  The Nordic report recommends actions to reduce plastic throughout the supply chain and across the life-cycle of plastic products.  The Council suggests four strategic goals: (1) elimination of problematic and avoidable plastic products; (2) sustainable management of all products; (3) sustainable waste management; and (4) chemical hazard reduction. The Council recommends that parties to the agreement would commit to developing national plastics management plans and incorporate both legally binding and voluntary measures.  The World Wildlife Fund, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and Boston Consulting Group have also weighed in with possible treaty language referenced in a joint report.

Of greater importance to the way forward is a carefully drafted “Chair’s Summary” prepared by the Chair of the AHEG.  The Chair’s Summary captures the range of views and work done by the AHEG within the UNEA mandate.  Countries are likely to see the Summary as the starting point for further deliberations on future work, including elements that might be included in a new negotiating mandate. 

Potential options for continued work by UNEA as summarized by the Chair include:

  • Setting a global common vision toward elimination of all discharge of plastic into the ocean
  • Developing national actions plans as a framework for addressing marine plastic litter
  • Promoting regional and international cooperation (including financial and technical assistance) to facilitate national actions
  • Furthering the scientific basis for policy approaches and measuring success
  • Facilitating multi-stakeholder engagement
  • Strengthening existing instruments, frameworks, partnerships and actions
  • Developing a “new global agreement, framework or other instrument” to provide a legal framework for a global response and to facilitate national responses
  • Enhancing coordination among instruments

In highlighting the option of a new global instrument, the Chair’s Summary notes that a new global agreement:

“ . . . could contain either legally binding and/or non-binding elements, such as:

i. Global and national reduction targets
ii. Design standards
iii. Phasing out avoidable plastic products
iv. Facilitation of national regional actions plans
v. Sharing of scientific knowledge through a scientific panel and utilizing globally harmonized monitoring methodology
vi. International coordination of financial and technical resources”

The Biden-Harris Administration is currently evaluating U.S. policy preferences for further action on marine plastics ahead of the next UNEA meeting, tentatively scheduled for February 2022.  Given the urgency of the plastics debris problem, the many policy options under consideration at the international level, and the critical role plastics play across most sectors of the economy, arriving at a U.S. position on what elements might be best suited for a new multilateral environmental agreement will not be easy. 

A central question for the Administration will be the extent to which any future agreement should focus on fostering national (or subnational) action and capacity to address the sources and pathways of marine plastics pollution or whether governments should address broader standards related to plastic production and use in the context of a more circular economy.  The Administration is also likely to be mindful of existing U.S. legal authorities and how those may or may not align with the approaches being floated by other governments.  The Biden Administration’s reengagement across an array of international fora will likely provide the U.S. with some leverage to shape the direction of future actions to combat plastics pollution at the international level.  That leverage includes shaping the direction of future negotiations on a new global agreement or framework.