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Friday, December 8, 2023

Standstill in the plastic waste agreement: everything for the bin

Plastic waste remains unrestricted. Countries with strong fossil fuel industries were very present at the negotiations.

A woman stands in a conference room wearing a dress made from plastic waste

No wonder: Recycled dress as a symbol of protest. Unfortunately it didn’t work Photo: Jamaes Wakibia/SOPA Images/imago

NAIROBI/BERLIN taz | “Frustrating”, “unfortunate”, “catastrophic” – scientists and civil society could hardly believe the outcome of the week-long negotiations on a new agreement against plastic waste in Nairobi, Kenya. On Sunday night it became clear that the working group that was supposed to determine the procedure for the next six months would not agree on a procedure.

This means there will officially be no negotiations until the next meeting. Because the schedule is tight anyway, it is now completely in question for some participants. An agreement by the end of 2024 no longer seems possible.

More than 1,900 delegates representing the 161 member states and 318 observer organizations, such as non-governmental organizations, negotiated in Nairobi. After two rounds of negotiations in Punta del Este in Uruguay a year ago and in Paris in the spring of this year, a text proposal was presented in Nairobi for the first time.

It contained very different options and approaches global excess plastic waste From production restrictions to better recycling processes. The negotiations in Nairobi were intended to sort through the proposals and develop the treaty in one direction.

Cardamom and sweet dates

“I would have liked the international community to have taken a good step forward by giving the order to formulate the concrete agreement,” said Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke, commenting on the result on Monday. “A large number of states spoke out in favor of it in Nairobi.” An agreement has failed because of those states that want to benefit from fossil business models such as plastic production.

Lemke was probably primarily addressing Saudi Arabia; The Gulf state acted as the main blocker, also visually. Throughout the week, the desert state had set up a large marquee right next to the negotiating rooms. In the “Saudi lounge” there was cardamom coffee and sweet dates.

A projector projected a Saudi men’s orchestra onto the wall of the tent, right next to a picture by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The Saudis’ closest negotiating partner was Russia, whose position one observer described as “The Russians just shit on everything right now“ summarized.

However, Saudi Arabia and Russia were not isolated. China, India and the USA also have economic interests in watering down the agreement and delaying the process; and in Europe too, a large chemical sector offers jobs and tax money. This became visible in the strong presence of the fossil fuel lobby in Nairobi.

Oil producing countries blocked

The environmental organization CIEL published a press release halfway through the conference: 143 lobbyists from the petroleum and chemical industries were registered in Nairobi – not counting the packaging and consumer goods industries. That was around a third more than at the previous conference in Paris. It was heard from EU delegate circles that the increased lobby presence was clearly noticeable. The end of the conference was appropriate.

Many NGO representatives were correspondingly pessimistic. “For the moment you have to say that the result is very disappointing,” says Florian Titze from the WWF. Karuna Rana, co-founder of an NGO that advocates for the rights of people from the Pacific states, was particularly concerned about the dangers that many islanders are exposed to as a result.

“Most of us are unhappy about the disunity and the lack of mandate to continue working on the agreement between conferences,” said Rana, “We are not treating the plastic problem as the environmental and health crisis that it is – and that was very disappointing to me .” The majority of states support the agreement, said Rana. “What concerns me is the power of a few oil-producing countries to delay negotiations.”

Many scientists who traveled as part of the “Scientists Coalition” were also disappointed. “The outcome of the negotiations is frustrating because we all worked extremely hard to bring scientific facts into the process,” says Melanie Bergmann from the Alfred Wegener Institute on the morning after the conference.

Informal search for allies

Magnus Løvold from the Norwegian Academy of International Law raged on the LinkedIn network, “the Nairobi Round will go down in history as an unmitigated failure of multilateral environmental diplomacy.” She did nothing other than document the extent of the UN committee’s disagreement in great detail. Under these circumstances, it is impossible to develop a treaty on plastic pollution.

How does it go from here? The fourth and so far penultimate round of negotiations will take place in Ottawa, Canada, in April. Even if there are no official negotiations in between, the states will try to find allies informally.

Observers in Nairobi agreed: If only Saudi Arabia pulled out of the negotiations, that would probably be manageable. However, if the country takes a handful of economically powerful states with it, this could fundamentally jeopardize an effective agreement.

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