Davos must understand climate change and plastics are interlinked

Jo Royle, Founder and CEO of Common Seas, makes a strong case for international policy that responds to the ecologically devastating relationship between plastics production and our changing climate. 

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Plastic and fossil fuels are two of the most intimately intertwined problems of our age. But as world leaders meet this week for the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in Switzerland, it’s safe to assume discussions around the Global Treaty on Plastic Pollution will involve only limited talk of how to tangibly curb plastic impact. 

Some 99% of the world’s plastic is still derived from fossil fuels. The production, conversion and waste management of plastics generate about 4% of global carbon emissions. If the plastics industry was a country, it would rank fifth in the world’s biggest carbon polluters, indicating how integral plastic is to the climate change problem. 

Over the last 30 years, plastic consumption has quadrupled. According to the Plastic Waste Makers Index, the production of single-use plastic from ‘virgin’ fossil fuel sources is still nowhere near its peak, and the use of recycled feedstocks remains marginal. From 2019 to 2021, 96 new production assets came online, and 20 petrochemical companies planned to add or expand virgin plastic production capacity up to 2027.

This vast growth is having disastrous consequences for people and the planet. More than three-quarters of people tested by Common Seas have plastic in their blood, and research shows that microplastics hinder our ocean’s ability to sequester carbon.  

These vast expanses of water play a huge part in limiting the march of climate change and have absorbed between 20 to 40% of global carbon emissions since the dawn of the industrial era. However, microplastic pollution is making its presence felt, reducing the ability of aquatic plants and zooplankton to absorb carbon.

World leaders have failed to recognise the vital link between fossil fuels and plastic. COP 28 concluded with a non-binding commitment to ‘transitioning away from fossil fuels‘ with no mention as to how this commitment is intertwined with reducing plastic production.  At the latest negotiations on a Global Treaty on Plastic Pollution, fossil fuel interests dominated, and delegates left unable to agree on a plan to carry out interim work to lay the foundation for a fourth negotiation.  

As we look to a new year of climate and plastic talks, the international community must take a multifaceted approach to addressing the plastic problem and fossil fuel use. To ensure progress, talks should focus on policy interventions that can deliver real change.

Solutions include implementing circular economy initiatives that focus on promoting reuse and encourage a move to sustainable products through policies such as Extended Producer Responsibility. Most importantly, cap on global plastics production must be agreed upon to prevent a gold rush in plastics undoing other efforts on climate change. 

Looking to the future, two things have to change. Governments must take a holistic approach to reducing plastic pollution and fossil fuel use, and plastic and climate talks need to recognise the impact one issue has on the other. The international community must take a unified approach to reverse the detrimental impact of plastic as a key component of action on climate change, or risk failing on multiple levels. 

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Image: Nigel Hoare


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