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Eyes turn to Ottawa to help repair strained talks on global plastic pollution treaty

TORONTO — As the latest talks on a global plastics treaty ended in accusations of deadlocked negotiations, eyes are now turning to Canada, which will play host to the next round of negotiations at a time when some warn the treaty's future hangs in th
As the latest talks on a global plastics treaty ended in accusations of deadlocked negotiations, eyes are turning to Canada which will play host to the next round of negotiations at a time when some warn the treaty's future hangs in the balance. A giant art sculpture shows a tap outpouring plastic bottles, each of which was picked up in the neighbourhood of Kibera, during the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) held at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, March 2, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Brian Inganga

TORONTO — As the latest talks on a global plastics treaty ended in accusations of deadlocked negotiations, eyes are now turning to Canada, which will play host to the next round of negotiations at a time when some warn the treaty's future hangs in the balance. 

Nations wrapped up on Sunday a third round of talks in Kenya as part of a five-meeting schedule to hammer out a draft of a treaty to end global plastic pollution. 

Consensus has so far been elusive at the negotiations, with Ottawa set to host the next round in April. Environmental groups have accused some oil-producing countries and industry groups of stall tactics in an effort to water down the treaty before negotiations wrap up at the end of next year. 

"If they don't find a way through these delay and divert tactics, Ottawa could become known as the place where the treaty failed," said Karen Wirsig, Environmental Defence's senior program manager for plastics, who attended last week's talks.

"So, yes, things are more complicated for the host country." 

Delegates said the draft treaty text became longer and more difficult to advance at the week-long talks in Kenya. States also failed to reach a consensus on the work to be done on the draft before the next round in Ottawa. 

"Canada and other high-ambition countries will need to up their game as we head to Ottawa in April in order move toward an effective and workable treaty," said Wirsig. 

Canada is part of a "high ambition" coalition of countries, led by Rwanda and Norway, that has called for measures to reduce production to "sustainable levels" and for legally binding global rules to end all plastic pollution by 2040. 

Meanwhile, some oil-producing countries have advocated for shifting previously agreed mandates of the treaty, such as by focusing on waste management rather than interventions across the full plastic life cycle. There has also been a push for the treaty to focus on voluntary measures at national levels to fight pollution, instead of global rules. 

The head of Greenpeace's delegation said the negotiations are "charging towards catastrophe." 

"When the negotiations resume in Canada in April 2024, our leaders must be ready to show a level of courage and leadership we have yet to see," said Graham Forbes. 

Global plastic waste is set to nearly triple by 2060 without action, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Made from oil and other fossil fuels, plastics also account for an estimated 3.4 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. 

Less than one-tenth of plastic is recycled, including in Canada, and scientists believe about nine million tonnes ends up in the ocean every year. Canadians produce about 2.9 million tonnes of plastic waste each year that isn't recycled or incinerated. 

Canada's Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault, speaking to reporters Monday, said no one was expecting fast-tracked negotiations on a global treaty to be easy. 

"It's going to be tough negotiations," he said. 

"We're in a better position to help the international community find those pathways toward success." 

More than 1,900 participants from 161 countries took part in the latest talks. Industry has also kept a standing at the negotiations, with 143 chemical and fossil fuel lobbyists registered to attend, a 36-per-cent increase over the cohort at the previous round in Paris, according to an analysis by the Center for International Environmental Law. 

Isabelle Des Chênes, executive vice-president of the industry group Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, said "all eyes will be on Canada" come the next round of talks. 

"We feel that the agreement should really focus on ending plastic pollution and not plastic production. Implementing production caps can really restrict the availability of plastics for other applications," said Des Chênes, speaking from Kenya last week. 

"So really important to ensure that we're focused on creating capacity and ability to manage the end of life of plastics." 

Miriam Diamond, professor of Earth science at the University of Toronto, says overproduction leading to mismanagement is the major driver of plastic pollution. 

"We know from practice that adding money, sinking money into waste management, while production continues to increase won't solve the problem," she said. 

Diamond co-authored a paper published this month that warned industry conflicts of interest could hamper treaty talks and called for safeguards to prevent improper influence over a UN science-policy panel on chemical, waste and pollution prevention, which she is involved in developing.

Guilbeault, the federal environment minister, has previously indicated he is not opposed to production limits, but said eliminating pollution means using plastic more carefully, not eliminating its use altogether. 

Environmental groups have pushed Guilbeault to offer clear support for a treaty with production scale-down targets. Greenpeace has argued for a treaty that would aim to reduce production by 75 per cent by 2040. 

"They're sort of holding out in terms of where they're going to be on some of the key control measures around reducing plastic production," said Forbes, the Greenpeace delegation head. 

"But I would say overall, Canada is playing a fairly constructive role and we're going to be looking to them to sort of grow in their leadership."

Canada has set a domestic goal to wipe out plastic waste by 2030. 

But last week, the government's ban on some single-use plastics like straws and grocery bags was put into question when the Federal Court ruled Ottawa had overstepped by designating all "plastic manufactured items" as toxic. Guilbeault said Monday the government would appeal the decision, which struck down the cabinet order underlying the ban. 

A strong treaty could help give not only Canada, but other countries still mulling plastics regulations, more legitimacy to take aggressive action, said Wirsig, of Environmental Defence. 

"Where Canada may have been leading or on the leading edge with being so far out front of the treaty, now the treaty might help Canada finish the job," she said. 

- With files from the Associated Press. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 20, 2023.

Jordan Omstead, The Canadian Press