In March 2022, the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) adopted Resolution (5/14) via consensus that called for a legally binding international instrument to end plastic pollution. The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) established under the Resolution completed its second session on 2 June 2023 and hopes to complete the negotiation process by the end of 2024. The third session, INC-3, is set to take place this November, where several countries have expressed intent to debate the merits and terms of the “zero-draft” for the first Global Plastics Treaty.
The historic UNEA Resolution has brought several important thematic concerns surrounding plastic pollution to the forefront. Despite its ambitious timeline, the Resolution calls for the future treaty to address the full life cycle of plastics, which includes “production, design and disposal.” The Resolution also reflects the urgency of addressing this issue, as the UNEA not only requested the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to convene the INC but also convene an ad-hoc open-ended working group on the issue to assist in negotiations. Critically, the UNEA requested the Executive Director on priority to provide support to developing countries in order to participate in sessions in both aforementioned forums. Finally, the Resolution also recognised the financial constraints surrounding plastic waste management and directed States to look into “international funding arrangements” that could make the goals of the instrument feasible for emerging market economies.
Keeping these thematic debates in mind, Pakistan should approach the remaining INC sessions with certain objectives in mind. There is no doubt that plastic pollution is a prevalent issue in Pakistan, with approximately 250 million tonnes of garbage waste in Pakistan, of which a majority is plastics. Pakistan put its full support behind Resolution 5/14 during its statement at INC-2. However, plastic treatment and eco-friendly waste disposal is a costly process that heavily relies on public-private sector collaboration. At the same time, the world currently faces a “triple planetary crisis” (pollution, biodiversity and climate change); hence, being complacent during these negotiations puts Pakistan at risk of being on the wrong side of history at the end of 2024. Therefore, Pakistan must make the most of the remaining INC sessions to move towards a plastics treaty that it not only supports on paper but can also uphold practically.
This article highlights three strategic goals Pakistan should have in mind as negotiations on the plastics treaty continue:
a. Bolster its international image by joining proactive coalitions
At INC-2, Pakistan aligned itself with the statement shared by the Asian Pacific Group (APG). Supporting the APG’s stance gives Pakistan two strategic advantages. Firstly, the APG statement places great emphasis on reaching a “decision by consensus”. The continued interest in approaching the treaty in a united manner gives developing countries like Pakistan a greater voice in negotiations. This prevents developed nations, which have greater sway in voting blocs, from creating a treaty that does not take into account the financial constraints of emerging economies. Secondly, it stresses that measures should be used to counter pollution related to the “entire life cycle of plastics.” This clarifies Pakistan’s position on the scope of the plastic pollution treaty to extend from product design to disposal, though some countries believe it is better to prioritise downstream stages of the plastic lifecycle.
Among the leading groups working on the Global Plastics Treaty is the High Ambition Coalition Against Plastics (HAC), which is led by Rwanda and Norway. The coalition consists of 60 members, including large economies such as France and the United Kingdom. No South Asian State aside from the Maldives is currently a part of the coalition. Hence, joining the High Ambition Coalition, particularly before India, could show great proactiveness on Pakistan’s part. Moreover, the HAC has stated that they wish to “mobilize financial resources and align financial flows to support implementation.” Hence, joining the coalition could help Pakistan amplify its stance on how essential it is to provide financial assistance to developing countries in order to implement the treaty effectively.
b. Gain financial assistance and technical support to establish a circular economy
Dealing with plastic pollution at every stage of the plastic life cycle requires the establishment of what is called a “circular economy.” This is a type of structure in the economy where raw materials are kept in a closed loop, and reusability is made feasible. This helps tackle poor plastic waste management, which is a large contributor to plastic pollution, especially in Pakistan. However, establishing a circular economy can be costly for countries like Pakistan, where several industries rely on semi-urban set ups. Altering the production practices in these industries to take into account plastic disposal can not only be costly but could also slow down production.
Pakistan should take advantage of the recent global spotlight on plastic pollution to partner with governmental and non-governmental entities that can help it fulfil its obligations under the future global plastics treaty without unduly burdening its fiscal resources. Resolution 5/14 contains a clause encouraging the establishment of a “financial mechanism to support implementing of the instrument including the option of a dedicated multilateral fund.” Pakistan should continue to push for such means of monetary assistance during the zero-draft negotiations at INC-3. In addition, Pakistan can work with non-governmental entities, which can save costs by sharing tried and tested frameworks. Pakistan has already partnered with the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership, which will make Pakistan the fifth country to adopt its model of systematic changes towards a circular economy and eradication of plastic waste pollution. The National Action Plastic Partnership (NPAP) that Pakistan will establish through this collaboration will prioritise locally-led decision-making and involve local city and business leaders. Critically, it also intends to connect Pakistan with “strategic financing opportunities.” This can be complemented by partnering with organisations like Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), which provides resources and advocates for establishing circular cities throughout the world. If Pakistani cities were to partner with the ICLEI, they would be the first partner circular city in South Asia
c. Work out how to cater towards industrial lobbies
As negotiations for a framework to tackle plastic pollution continue at the international level, large industrial lobbies have regularly attempted to dilute the impact of an eventual plastics treaty. The Break Free From Plastics citizens coalition has publicly opposed the amount of influence given to the industry in the multistakeholder forum during INC-1, which they believe was used to cause delays in negotiations. This contributed to the forum being dissolved before INC-2.
Industrial influence in Pakistan is undeniable, with several parliamentarians having direct links with various manufacturing industries. Pakistan also has the second-largest market of domestic plastics in South/Southeast Asia (only behind India) and exhibits a growth rate of 15 per cent per annum. Thus, in terms of both employment and sales, the economic losses would make drastically increasing restrictions on the plastic industry too unpopular of a measure for any sitting government to take.
Resolution 5/14 has explicitly mentioned the need to encourage action by the private sector. Pakistan has attempted to do this with the help of its Extended Producer Responsibility, which institutionalises the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Pakistan should facilitate consultations with relevant industries to incentivise responsible practices throughout the plastics lifecycle without creating political backlash from interest groups in the industry.
The current negotiations on a legally binding plastics treaty have exhibited a rare level of international consensus. This is in contrast to the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Accords, which have had key stakeholders (most notably the United States of America) refusing to accede to or withdrawing from the treaties. However, this process of consensus can be harmful to developing countries like Pakistan if they are not proactive in the negotiation process.
Currently, South Asian States have missed out on playing a prominent role in multilateral efforts towards the plastics treaty. Meanwhile, South East Asia has shown increasing interest, with countries like South Korea being backed by the APG for hosting future INC conferences. Hence, by becoming a more prominent participant in the negotiations (such as by joining the High Ambition Coalition), Pakistan will improve its reputation for upholding environmental standards in front of the international community. This, in turn, could help in trade negotiations such as those Pakistan does with the EU under the GSP+. In addition, if Pakistan were to take a less passive role in these negotiations, it could help craft a treaty that not only provides an institutionalised framework for tackling the plastic crisis but may also provide it with the financial assistance to do s