By Elena Kosolapova, SDG Knowledge Hub

Over the past months, chemicals and waste governance, including efforts to address plastic pollution, has featured prominently on the global agenda. The issue area spans several multilateral processes, ranging from well-established tracks to nascent talks towards new mechanisms and platforms. This Policy Brief describes the current governance landscape, unpacks the recent developments, and flags issues of concern for sustainable development.

In January, an SDG Knowledge Hub policy brief highlighted chemicals and waste as an area to watch in 2023. Four months into it, the year hasn’t disappointed.

In 2022, the resumed fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) adopted resolutions launching negotiations to develop an international treaty to curb plastic pollution and to establish a science-policy panel to contribute further to the sound management of chemicals and waste and prevent pollution. The two processes promptly got underway and held meetings both in late 2022 and early 2023, with a view to concluding by the end of 2024.

Developing a science-policy panel on chemicals and waste

Science-policy bodies to support efforts to address climate change and biodiversity loss – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) – already exist. In October 2022, countries kicked off deliberations on the establishment of a dedicated platform to bridge the science-policy gap on chemicals and waste.

The talks continued in early 2023, with the next meeting currently scheduled for the last quarter of 2023. Delegates reached agreement on a list of elements that will need to be negotiated and a timeline for their discussion. According to the Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB), the intersessional period will be critical, as only two more negotiating sessions remain before formal establishment of the panel.

Negotiations on a plastics treaty

Following a June 2022 meeting of an ad hoc open-ended working group to prepare for the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), negotiations commenced towards an international legally binding instrument (ILBI) on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. The first meeting of the INC, held in Punta del Este, Uruguay, addressed, inter alia, the scope, objectives, structure, and potential elements of the instrument. The talks will resume next month in Paris, France, with a third round of talks scheduled for November. A fourth and a fifth negotiating sessions will convene before the plastic pollution treaty is adopted in mid-2025.

In promoting “sustainable production and consumption of plastics through, among other things, product design and environmentally sound waste management, including through resource efficiency and circular economy approaches,” the new plastics agreement would be “the first concrete, legally-binding embodiment of a comprehensive lifecycle approach to chemicals and waste.” Such an approach is also envisioned as a focus of the post-2020 platform for the sound management of chemicals and waste – another negotiation track addressing the chemicals cluster.

SAICM and a post-2020 global framework for the sound management of chemicals and waste

To ensure that the use and production of chemicals do not cause significant adverse effects on human health and the environment, the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development called for developing, by 2005, “a strategic approach to international chemicals management.”

In 2006, the first International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM1) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), launched the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) – a flexible, voluntary, non-binding, multi-stakeholder, and multi-sectoral initiative dedicated to promoting collaboration towards achieving, by 2020, the use and production of chemicals in ways that lead to the minimization of significant adverse effects on human health and the environment.

To replace the SAICM, which was due to expire in 2020, ICCM4 decided, in 2015, to launch an intersessional process to design a post-2020 framework or platform for the sound management of chemicals and waste, for consideration by ICCM5 in 2020. SDG target 12.4 also captures the 2020 deadline. Yet, even back in 2015, it was clear that most countries would not reach the 2020 goal, and ICCM5 ended up being postponed until 2023 following several COVID-19-related delays.

resumed fourth meeting of the SAICM Intersessional Process (IP4) convened from 27 February to 3 March 2023. Unable to conclude the talks, delegates agreed to reconvene immediately prior to ICCM5, scheduled for September. Meanwhile, to advance work intersessionally, they established thematic groups on: strategic objectives, targets, and measurability; mechanisms to support implementation; and financial considerations, including capacity building. ICCM5 is expected to adopt a global framework or instrument for the sound management of chemicals and waste – three years after the originally planned end date of negotiations.

BRS Conventions

The BRS Triple COP will convene in May 2023. It comprises the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, the 11th meeting of the COP to the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, and the 11th meeting of the COP to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Together, the BRS COPs address production, use, and disposal of a wide range of chemicals and waste. They bring the highest profile to the issue area and touch on many issues being addressed in other processes.

Regular meetings of the science bodies of the Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions will also take place in the fall.

Plastics at the WTO

Perhaps less known are efforts of 76 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) (as of April 2023) to see how trade and the multilateral trading system (MTS) can contribute to tackling plastic pollution by supporting more sustainable plastics trade.

Launched in November 2020, the Dialogue on Plastic Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade, or DPP for short, is guided by a December 2021 ministerial statement. The ministerial statement recognizes “the need for further commitment and actions across the life cycle of plastics to address marine litter and microplastics, including through a circular economy approach” and aims to identify “actions that participating Members could take collectively to support global efforts to reduce plastic pollution.”

Discussions within this group are focused on developing “concrete, pragmatic, and effective outcomes” ahead of the 13th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC13) in February 2024. Ideas for such outcomes are currently being explored in three work streams that cover “cross-cutting issues,” “reduction and circularity to tackle plastic pollution,” and “promoting trade to tackle plastic pollution.”  

The Road Ahead

With the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) agreed in December last year, the pollution element of the triple planetary crisis – the other two being climate change and biodiversity loss – is the one currently lacking a comprehensive framework to guide its governance. There are a number of efforts underway to fill this gap. It is the hope of many that the outcome for people and the planet will be greater that the sum of its parts.

The author would like to thank Ieva Baršauskaitė for her invaluable editorial suggestions and feedback.