Why Canada Urgently Needs to Support a Global Plastic Treaty
– By Tom Gammage –
Plastic pollution is widely recognised as one of the most salient environmental and human health crises of the modern time. From extraction of the fossil fuels used to produce it to its manufacture, use, and end of life disposal, the lifecycle of plastic severely impacts every level of biological organisation – from genes to ecosystems.
After decades of failed voluntary efforts and a patchwork of incongruent laws and policies around the world, the issue has only worsened. It has become increasingly clear that preventing plastic pollution requires something that is missing at the global level. A dedicated global framework – a legally-binding Convention on Plastic Pollution – that addresses the full lifecycle of plastics from production and product design to waste prevention and management. What is needed is an adaptive framework that coordinates global action while catalysing national action, one that is responsive to science and national circumstances, with mechanisms and structures in place to operationalise and institutionalise commitments.
The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), the global ‘Parliament’ on environmental issues, is meeting in Kenya in February 2022 to decide whether to commence negotiations on a new treaty. This has been a long time coming. Since UNEA’s inaugural session in 2014, international support for a global treaty on plastic pollution has been gradually but consistently building, not just from countries, regions, and civil society organisations, but also progressive industry who see the value in a global agreement.
However, in order to secure ‘the treaty the world needs,’ the most powerful and influential countries need to recognise the urgency, express support and lead by example. Of the minority of such countries undecided on a new global agreement, Canada is, surprisingly, on the list.
Good policy is based on good science, and good science is understood best by scientists themselves. Yet the voice of academics, researchers and scientists is too often drowned out in policy discourse, with limited opportunities to engage in decision-making and oftentimes a reluctance to venture outside the comfort envelope of accuracy, logical presentation, and emotional neutrality that defines the academic world. But it is these very traits – accuracy, logic, and emotional neutrality – that make scientists the very people we should be listening to. They are the ones working systematically and in great detail, through field observation or experimental study, to understand our world.
The rallying call from 42 prominent Canadian scientists that have supported our call for the Government of Canada to join the 138 countries calling for a global agreement on plastic pollution should therefore be taken with the degree of seriousness and legitimacy with which it was declared.
When scientists speak up, the world listens.
The same was true when 11,000 scientists declared a climate emergency in 2019, and when a group of experts published a peer-reviewed statement on the risk of food contact chemicals in plastic on human health in 2020. Both made shockwaves throughout the world, and the same is true here.
Many years of progress and political momentum lie, spring-loaded, in eager anticipation of the UNEA meeting in February 2022. If a mandate to negotiate a new treaty isn’t adopted then, it will likely take many more years, at which point it could be too late to catalyse the broad system change required to avoid complete catastrophe.
For this scenario to be avoided, Canada is urgently needed. Despite demonstrating leadership on this issue by crafting the Ocean Plastics Charter and a national zero-waste-by-2030 commitment, we will fall short on delivering these visions without taking the additional step of negotiating and adopting a binding global agreement on plastic pollution to operationalise, institutionalise and supplement them.
With only nine months until the decision is made at UNEA, time is perilously short. The upcoming Arctic Ministerial Conference on May 20th, where eight Arctic states and six Indigenous groups will meet to discuss joint priorities and issues of concern is an ideal place for Canada to express support. This is especially true considering the recent Symposium of Plastics in the Arctic and sub-Arctic region that highlighted the magnitude of the issue for Arctic states, as well as the now well documented climate impacts of plastic pollution. The same is true for the G7 meeting planned for June, where Canada will convene with six of the world’s most powerful nations, four of which openly support a treaty.
As the world moves towards consensus, all eyes are on Canada.
Tom Gammage is a marine biologist and campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-profit NGO that exposes environmental crime and abuse and uses investigative approaches to drive progress on environmental policy. He has 7 years’ experience working across a number of issues, including endangered habitat conservation, small-scale fisheries in the global South and plastic pollution. His specialism lies at the interface between science, policy, and practice.