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SA’s draft position on global plastic pollution treaty weakens its global and regional standing – expert

A draft position by South Africa suggesting it will vote against a proposed global plastics treaty at a ministerial meeting next month looks like a “clear case” of heavy lobbying from the industry sector, according to an international expert. 

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In June, the Mail & Guardian reported that a confidential draft position paper by the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment revealed the country would not support the planned treaty.

The U-turn from aligning with the rest of the Africa region, which strongly supports the treaty, is not based on procedural concerns, but on a false narrative that such a treaty would be bad for the country and/or not needed, according to David Azoulay, the director of environmental health at nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law.

“This is clearly just a copy and paste of industry arguments who realise that a treaty would require them to reconsider their polluting business model that rests on externalising the massive costs of plastic pollution on to society,” Azoulay told the Mail & Guardian.

A worrying aspect of this decision — if confirmed — is how South Africa is departing from regional coordination and agreed positions, he added.

“We believe that it very much weakens South African standing on the international scene, as well [its] potential regional leadership as it so clearly goes against the firmly held positions of the rest of the region,” Azoulay said, alluding to a resolution at the Bamako Convention, Congress of the Parties (COP) and the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment meeting.

There is “undoubtedly” a very powerful global momentum towards a new legally binding plastic treaty, Azoulay said. More than 130 countries have officially declared their clear intention to support the establishment of an intergovernmental negotiating committee to work out a new treaty.

“While all the countries that support such a position may not have the exact same idea of what the treaty should be, that speaks volume to the momentum,” he said. “This is because all those countries recognise the necessity to establish globally coordinated targets for their national actions and, more broadly, because they see the need for coordination of national and regional actions at the global level, and because most countries have now come to realise that they cannot protect themselves from the impacts of plastics production, use and disposal alone.”

He said no one believed that the treaty “in and of itself will be sufficient to fully address the plastic pollution crisis, but they realise that without a treaty, their national/regional actions are bound to fail”.

South Africa has expressed doubts before about the cost of negotiating such a treaty and the time it would take to adopt and put in place.

“Those are valid concerns that are shared also by a large number of countries who do support the treaty,” said Azoulay. He described how Australia and New Zealand were the most prominent representatives of countries who shared those concerns and were now both officially supporting an intergovernmental negotiating committee for a treaty at the upcoming United Nations Environment Assembly (Unea) meeting.

Forestry, fisheries and the environment spokesperson Albi Modise said the department was the focal point for chemicals and waste multilateral environmental agreements. 

“At this stage no decision whatsoever has been taken by the department on any new international agreement that arises from Unea with regard to plastic waste,” said Modise, adding that leaked draft documents did not represent [final] decisions of the organisation.

“The department is deeply concerned about plastic waste and it is a matter of public record that we have taken a range of measures to combat [it] and will continue to focus on this with the greatest diligence,” he said.

“The nature and process of negotiations in international multilateral environmental agreements is that each country’s position — and, in this particular case, the details of the proposal of possible strengthening and amendment — are only presented to other countries during the negotiations so as not to compromise the integrity of the consultation and negotiating processes.”

All negotiating mandates have to be approved by Environment Minister Barbara Creecy and then taken through cabinet.

Writing in the journal Science last month, leading academics and attorneys, including Azoulay, called for a new legally binding international plastic treaty as the starting point for curbing the plastic pollution crisis across the entire life cycle.

“In the past, the international community tended to view the plastics problem from a predominantly ocean-focused and waste-centered perspective,” they said. “However, plastics are increasingly found in all environmental media, including terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere, as well as human matrices, including lungs and placenta.”

They argued for a new international legally binding agreement that addressed the entire life cycle of plastics from extraction of raw materials to legacy plastic pollution.

Only by taking this approach, the authors said, could efforts match the magnitude and transboundary nature of this escalating problem and its social, environmental, and economic impacts.

“Targeting the full life cycle of plastics allows for a more equitable distribution of the costs and benefits of relevant actions across the global value chain,” they added.

According to the paper, production and consumption should be phased out by 2040, with recycled content becoming the standard, with limited exceptions. 

“Such a treaty should facilitate the safe circularity of plastics, incentivising the design for recycling, improving recycling rates, and fostering recycled content. The process would include eliminating hazardous substances, providing health benefits to consumers and ecosystems while transforming the entire plastics value chain,” it says.

The proposed treaty, too, should eliminate plastic pollution in the environment, addressing both plastics that have already accumulated and those already in use from ending up in the environment. “To meet the goal, there must be a scaling up of existing national and regional-level instruments,” according to the authors. 

Solutions must be developed that are “commensurate with plastic’s role in contributing to the climate crisis, recognising that if plastic production continues at its anticipated pace, the increase in virgin plastics production will consume 10% to 13% of the remaining global carbon budget [that is meant] to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C”, they added.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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