UN Environment makes historic decision towards ending plastic pollution

It is expected that an ambitious global treaty on plastic pollution will be ready by 2024.

In Summary

•Kenya banned single-use plastics in 2017 but is still being sneaked through porous borders.

•It is expected that an ambitious global treaty on plastic pollution will be ready by 2024.

Delegates attend the fifth United Nations Environmental Assembly at UNEP headquarters, Gigiri, Nairobi on February 18, 2021 image: ANDREW KASUKU
Delegates attend the fifth United Nations Environmental Assembly at UNEP headquarters, Gigiri, Nairobi on February 18, 2021 image: ANDREW KASUKU

Kenya's bid to end plastic pollution got a major boost on Wednesday after UN Environment Assembly unanimously agreed to develop a legally binding treaty.

The decision is one of the world’s most ambitious environmental actions since the 1989 Montreal Protocol which effectively phased out ozone-depleting substances.

Peru and Rwanda were sponsoring the resolution that Kenya was among African countries supporting.

Following the adoption of the draft resolution on plastics, an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee will now be formed to kick-start work towards a global and legally binding agreement to address the plastic menace.

The adopted UN resolution outlines the development of a robust treaty that allows for global rules and obligations across the full life cycle of plastic.

The adopted resolution ‘End Plastic Pollution: Towards a legally binding instrument’, establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee that will develop the specific content of the new treaty with the aim of completing its work by the end of 2024.

Some of the elements that will be considered in developing the new treaty include global objectives to tackle plastic pollution in marine and other environments and its impacts and global obligations and measures along the full lifecycle of plastics, including product design, consumption and waste management.

Others are a mechanism for providing policy-relevant scientific information and assessment, a mechanism for providing financial support to the treaty implementation and National and international cooperative measures.

The treaty will hold nations, businesses, and society accountable for eliminating plastic pollution from our environments.

The legally binding instrument on plastic was among a series of draft resolutions on biodiversity and health, green economy, and circularity.

The Assembly also considered other critical issues, including ecosystem-based approaches and biodiversity, green recovery and circular economy, and chemical waste and nitrogen management.

A resolution is a formal expression of the opinion or will of the UN Environment Assembly.

The Committee of Permanent Representatives considers and prepares the draft resolutions and decisions for adoption by the Assembly.

Final negotiations of the draft resolutions take place during the Open-ended Meeting of the Committee of Permanent Representatives and, if needed, at UNEA itself.

Resolutions are adopted at UNEA by consensus (adoption of a decision without a vote), however, proposals can be adopted with a vote (which shall normally be done by show of hands but any representative may request for a roll call).

The adoption of a resolution is the formal act (e.g., the strike of the gavel) by which the form and content of a proposed resolution are approved by delegations representing the Member States.

Earlier in the morning, President Uhuru Kenyatta warned UN member states that failure to address three planetary crises of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss threatens the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Kenyatta in a speech read by Environment CS Keriako Tobiko said Kenya welcomes recommendations for adoption by the Assembly.

“In this regard, Kenya supports the proposal for a global agreement to tackle plastic pollution as a critical step towards building back better and greener,” Kenyatta said.

The President said the question before the Assembly is no longer the nature of the challenge; rather, it is our willingness and capacity to address it.  

“We need a stronger mechanism to review whether we are keeping our commitments and to exchange this information in a transparent manner.  These measures need not be intrusive or infringe upon sovereignty,” he said.

The head of state science is crystal clear that humans are putting extreme pressure on the planet. 

He said humanity has crossed the planetary boundaries as the main driver for chemical pollution; biodiversity loss; greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere (causing climate change); excessive nitrogen and phosphorus pollution; and land degradation, thereby threatening the stability of global ecosystems upon which humanity depends.

This, he said is despite representing less than 1 per cent of life on the planet.

Kenyatta said humanity must recognize that it is inextricably interlinked with nature and that we have a shared future.  Our planet can no longer endure the stress. 

He decried that numerous Multilateral Environmental Agreements have been signed and regulations put in place to minimize these risks but the risks, continue unabated.

Kenyatta said the commitments that member states make should be credible and live up to the country’s obligations. 

“For without such accountability, any agreement remains but empty words on paper,” he said.

Kenyatta said Kenya is a party to several Multilateral Environmental Agreements supports and advocates for collaboration and cooperation with UN Assembly.

Kenyatta said the Horn of Africa has experienced an increase in the frequency, magnitude, and severity of disasters such as drought, flooding, and invasion of desert locusts. 

This has led to food insecurity; loss of life and livelihoods; destruction of infrastructure; and, in some cases, inter-ethnic clashes over water and pasture.  

Kenyatta said the government has taken bold and multi-faceted actions on forests, which include policy reforms and investments to protect existing forests, restoration of degraded forest ecosystems and an increase in forest cover through an aggressive afforestation and reforestation programme. 

He said a Climate Smart Agriculture Policy and Rangelands Management Strategy to support sustainable land management and implementation of innovative and transformative actions in the vast Arid and Semi-Arid Lands is being implemented. 

Kenyatta said there is a need to control plastic, chemical waste and other pollutants as they end up in oceans every year. 

“They impact negatively on food safety, human and animal health, and marine ecosystems,” he said.

World Wide Fund for Nature welcomed UNEA’s decision and urged the world’s governments to seize the powerful momentum for eliminating plastic pollution and act just as strongly and decisively in developing the full content of the treaty by 2024.

 “We stand at a crossroad in history when ambitious decisions taken today can prevent plastic pollution from contributing to our planet’s ecosystem collapse. By agreeing to develop a legally binding global treaty on plastic pollution, our world leaders are paving the way for a cleaner and safer future for people and the planet,” said Marco Lambertini, Director General, WWF International.

WWF said it is committed to supporting the work of UNEA’s Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee in finalising the important details of the historic treaty over the next two years.

“But our work is far from over – world leaders must now show even more resolve in developing and implementing a treaty which addresses our current plastic pollution crisis and enables an effective transition to a circular economy for plastic.’

Lambertini said the move requires not just any treaty but one with clear and strong global standards and targets that will create a level-playing field that incentivises nations to abide by common rules and regulations while also penalising harmful products and practices.

Pressure has been mounting on governments for a legally binding treaty.

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