Transcript: How (Not) to Make a Plastics Treaty – Part I: Ambition in a Bracket

This is the first of three parts of the conversation. We take you back into each meeting of the treaty negotiations – INC-1 in Uruguay, INC-2 in France and INC-3 in Kenya. We’ll talk diplomacy and give you a better understanding of what’s going on on the international stage.


Music – Plink by Dorian Roy (Theme)

Magnus Løvold
If states, a majority of states, a credible majority of states can come together and adopt global rules to prevent plastic pollution, they can also do the similar things on climate change, on biological diversity, and indeed also other issues of environmental and global concern.

Anja Krieger
Welcome to Plastisphere, the podcast on plastics, people, and the planet. My name is Anja Krieger. This year, 2024, is the crucial year for the plastics treaty negotiations. If you haven’t heard about them, the United Nations are working on an international, legally binding agreement to end plastic pollution. It’s been called the most important environmental deal since the Paris climate accord. Many countries want it to be an ambitious agreement that covers the full lifecycle of plastics, from production to disposal. But some countries are not so keen on this, and they have held up the development of the treaty. How and why exactly did they do this, and is there still hope for a strong and effective international agreement?

To explore this, I connected with Magnus Løvold. He’s an expert in Peace and Conflict Studies, and an advisor with Lex International and NAIL, the Norwegian Academy of International Law. A little heads-up here: Our conversation got very deep and nerdy, so I divided it into three parts. In the next episodes, Magnus and I will take you back in time and into each meeting of the treaty negotiations. We will talk a lot about diplomacy and not as not much about plastics – but I assure you that you will come out of this with a much better understanding of what’s going on on the international stage. In the past, Magnus worked on a completely different topic, on disarmament and nuclear weapons. So that’s where we started our chat.

Anja Krieger
Magnus, how did you get from weapons of mass destruction to plastics?

Magnus Løvold
Well, that’s a really good question. And I think when working on an issue like nuclear weapons, what we were involved in was to develop a new treaty on nuclear weapons, a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, which was an exciting process, and it led to the adoption of a treaty in 2017. And I think through that process, we really saw how international law could be used as a sort of a force to solve global problems.
And I have been really thinking about some of these biggest problems that we’re faced with, that humanity is faced with, right? We know that through our activities, through human activities, we are in the process of destroying our own livelihoods, the livelihoods and the nature that we depend on for our survival. And in some respects, things are getting worse, right? Thinking about climate change, thinking about the risk of use of nuclear weapons, or thinking about global health threats like the pandemic that we just went through.

And I think it’s really that fundamental belief that if we do come together an international community and we develop clear rules, rules of the road for how we should deal with this problem, it is actually possible. It doesn’t require any magical solutions. We can solve it.

And I think a few years ago, you know, when they first put the issue of plastic pollution on the agenda of the UN Environment Assembly, we really saw that that is an issue of transboundary concern. To address this, we need international cooperation. And this is really a good candidate for a new treaty. And I really hope that we, through this process, will set what we call a precedent for, the international community’s ability to solve other problems, including other environmental problems in the future as well.

Anja Krieger
So this is such a promising candidate to regain trust in these institutions. I mean, that would be the ideal outcome for me as well. Let’s go into the negotiations, which you have been observing. Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the plastics treaty negotiations, could you share, in a nutshell, what this process is about? Like why did the United Nations decide to pursue a global plastics treaty and what is the timeline?

Magnus Løvold
Okay, so the concern around plastic pollution has been on the agenda of the international community for some decades now. But it really became an issue of attention when the UN Environment Assembly adopted a resolution on, I think it was marine litter and debris. That signaled that states were coming together and were willing to say, okay, we have this problem, we have to look at it – we have to find a way to deal with it together, right, as an international community of states.

And then that process led to a few more resolutions, as normally these processes go, that indicated a gradually greater level of ambition and clarity about what needed to be done. There were some expert group meetings, and that finally led in 2022 to the adoption of a mandate to negotiate a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. And that’s how this process started.

Anja Krieger
What is the timeline from there?

Magnus Løvold
So when they adopted this negotiation mandate in the UN Environment Assembly in 2022, the states that adopted this, they set themselves the ambition of concluding this treaty by the end of 2024. So that’s this year, right? So since that resolution was adopted, we’ve seen three sessions of what is called the Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee, which is basically a committee established to negotiate this treaty. So there was one in Punta del Este in Uruguay, and then there was a second one in Paris, France, in May/June 2023. There was the third one and the one that was last, in Nairobi, Kenya. And then we will have a fourth session coming up now in Ottawa, Canada, and then a final session in Busan in South Korea.

And the ambition is that this treaty will be concluded by the end of this year, basically, through these sessions. And then this will be opened and presented for signature by states at the diplomatic conference in 2025. So that’s the timeline, that’s the foreseen timeline. Now, of course, we don’t know whether that will be the actual timeline, because it depends on states actually being able to agree on a treaty. And, you know, so far they seem to be quite far from agreeing on almost anything. So it’s going to be very interesting to see this year, whether they are indeed able to agree on this treaty within the sort of envisaged timeline.

Anja Krieger
So, the first session to negotiate the treaty took place in Uruguay in the winter of 2022, and the ambitions were quite high, you reported in your blog. How would you describe what these ambitions were about at that point?

Magnus Løvold
So what we’ve seen, and what we saw at the first session in Uruguay, which I think was quite promising, was that a big, fairly big group of countries and a sort of cross-regional group of countries who call themselves the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, they had developed some positions about what the treaty should contain concretely. And the fact that they in that position called for specific measures to prohibit or phase out maybe certain problematic plastic products or plastic chemicals or plastic polymers, you know, that’s a level of specificity in the policy demand that they put forward that I found very interesting, because that’s sort of a way to try to concretize things.

So, in that sense, I would say like ambition could be seen, as, you know, to what extent are you able and willing to actually concretize your demands? And then also, of course, the second part of this is that these measures, if you’re talking about bans or phase-outs of certain plastic products, you’re pretty high up in the value chain of plastics. We know that from the outset, there’s been countries that have been keen for this process to lead to a treaty that regulates maybe waste management sort of downstream in the value chain of plastic pollution or plastics. And I would say that’s not very ambitious. But if you take it more upstream and try to address some of the root causes of plastic pollution, that in my view is more ambitious.

But of course, the tricky part is that the more ambitious you are and the more specific you are in your demand, the harder it becomes to actually generate broad support for your proposals. Like, if you are very ambiguous and you’re fudging things and say, we need something that is ambitious, along the life cycle, you know, with these kind of words, you can get everybody to agree. But once you get into the details and it becomes specific, the challenge of generating support and agreement around this becomes much harder. But I found it encouraging already that there was a sizable group of countries that were getting ready to already then start mobilizing support for these more specific measures in the upstream.

Anja Krieger
However, you also observed that the devil lay in the details. And from the outside it seemed rather trivial reading it that people were talking about a bracket in a text. But this bracket could send the plastic pollution treaty into an eternal diplomatic gyre, you called it. Specifically a rule number 37. Tell us, what is that about? For all of us who are not familiar with these international negotiation processes.

Magnus Løvold
So there was this group of countries that were getting quite ambitious and quite specific, quite clear that they wanted measures to actually regulate some kind of production of plastics or plastic products. And I think that that made some countries quite worried. Some countries that had maybe, you know, gone into these negotiations and this process thinking that, ‘yeah, this is going to be a treaty on waste management, and there’s not really going to be any specific rules here, and it’s going to be up to us at the national level, what are we going to do about it anyway? So this is sort of fine. We can go along with this.’ But then they saw this quite impressive mobilization around these very specific upstream measures and they said, ‘oh, what is happening now? We need to sort of try to pull the emergency brake.’ And they did that by starting a discussion about the rules of procedure, and specifically the question of how decisions are to be made in the committee.

There was already at a preparatory meeting that took place before Uruguay, in Dakar, Senegal, there’d already been a debate about rules of procedure, of the committee and the rules of procedure. They’re like standard, right? You need, for a group of states to come together and negotiate a treaty, they need to agree on some basic rules of the road, right? I mean, who can participate and how are decisions going to be made and, you know, the modalities or ‘how are we going to be organized? Who’s going to be the chair’ and powers of the chair and the different subsidiary bodies like the structure of the committee. There are some fundamental things that needs to be decided in advance, and it’s really great if these decisions about the procedure are made before the discussion on substance is being made. Because then, you know, you can start first to decide the rules of the road.

It’s a bit like playing cards, right? If you decide on the rules of what should be the rules of the card game, and then you start playing – and then who wins, who wins and who loses, who loses. You agreed on the rules, its fair, right?

Now, the problem that they encountered was in this process that they weren’t entirely able to agree on the rules of procedure at that preparatory meeting in Dakar. So when that preparatory meeting forwarded the draft rules of procedure to the first session in Punta del Este, there were some brackets in the text. And brackets in a text, in an international context – that indicates there is not agreement on this text. It also means, legally, that the text can’t be legally enforced. So in a sense it is, what is in brackets, means that, it’s as if it wasn’t really there. But it’s also in a working document, you include it because maybe at a later point you can resolve these brackets and actually get agreement. So it’s useful.

So there were left some brackets in this text and that related to the voting rights of the European Union. And this is something that the European Union and the United States have been debating for some time in various international arenas. You know, the European Union, they have a mandate to negotiate on behalf of their member states and to represent their members. And they also have a sort of a competence to develop rules on behalf of their member states in a number of areas, including with respect to to plastic pollution. They have a single-use plastic directive, for instance, and they have these frameworks.

And because of that, the European Union, since they’re negotiating as a bloc, as a so-called regional economic integration organization, they also feel that they should be able to vote on behalf of its members. And no one disputes this. But the United States, they say, okay, we support that and we support that you coordinate and that you vote on behalf of members. But it’s important for us that you can only vote on behalf of the members that are actually participating in the negotiations and present at the time of the vote, because otherwise all the European countries could just, like, stay at home and leave it to the European Commission. The European Commission could go and negotiate on their behalf and then cast suddenly, the number of votes equal to the number of EU members, which I believe is 27, if I’m not mistaken, right? So they would suddenly have like 27 votes to cast and that would sort of run counter to, you know, the principle of like one country, one vote, which is sort of fundamental in the UN system. So the United States, okay, you can vote on behalf of these countries or on your members, but they need to be there. They need to be present.

And this is a bit of a principled disagreement between the European Union and the United States. They weren’t able to resolve this in Dhakar. So the disagreement was then like forwarded through these brackets. And then when the chair of the committee, the Peruvian chair Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, opened the first session, and he then came to the issue on the agenda, which is about rules of procedure, he didn’t have a clean draft to present to the Committee for adoption. So therefore he proposed that, well, okay, since we don’t have agreement on the text, I suggest that we so-called provisionally apply the text and then we continue consultations to try to reach agreement on the remaining text in the brackets.

Now, this gave countries that were maybe a little bit anxious about, you know, these ambitions that have been expressed in the negotiations, this gave them an opportunity to start a debate about this. And what they did, they started out very gently like saying, you know, okay, we are a little bit unsure about this bracket in rule 37, we have another proposal. They wanted to expand the brackets and sort of got into that debate, although it was really just an issue between the United States and European Union. But they sort of used that as a hook to start a broader debate about rules of procedure. They had no real interest in the voting rights of the EU. But what they wanted to have a debate about was the decision making rule, which was another rule, rule 38, in the rules of procedure.

Because what was agreed in Dhakar and what was forwarded from Dhakar to Uruguay, was that decisions in matters of substance could be made, should be made, you know, try to reach consensus on the decision, which is standard. Try to get everybody to agree or at least not object to substantive matters. But if that fails, it is a possibility for the committee to make decisions by a majority vote or a two-thirds majority vote. Now, that means that the treaty could be adopted even if some countries object, right, even in the face of some countries’ objection.

So this made some countries that were worried that they would end up as a minority in this process. And they saw this sort of ambition coming from the High Ambition Coalition. They got really worried. So what they wanted to do is to try to replace that rule that stipulated that decision could be made by a two.thirds majority, with an absolute requirement that all decisions must be made by full consensus. Which would effectively give them a legal right to veto any decisions made by the Committee on matters of substance, including the adoption of the treaty.

And I think they felt that because the ambition was sort of rising, that they needed this right, they needed to have this option. So they used the debate about the voting rights of the European Union or regional economic integration zones to then say like, oh, if we’re talking about voting rights, this will have implications also on the next rule on rule 38 about decision making. So we should also place this in brackets. And that’s indeed what one country suggested already in Uruguay where they say that, you know, we don’t want decisions to be made by a majority, we want decisions to require full consensus. And that really set the stage for a very nasty debate about this at the next INC in Paris.

Anja Krieger
So do I get this right? There was a meeting to decide on the rules of the card game, let’s say. And then one rule in the card game was not quite clear, but they started to play the card game anyways. But then somebody came in and said, because this one rule in the card game has not been decided, we also want to call into question this other rule in the card game that we have already decided on, which would be that a vote could be possible if consensus isn’t reached. Is that correct?

Magnus Løvold
That is exactly right, yes.

Anja Krieger
Okay. Who were these countries?

Magnus Løvold
So initially in Uruguay, it was Saudi Arabia that first raised this issue. And we know of course, they produce oil, um, a large oil producer and exporter, which is of course, the feedstock of a lot of plastic. And we also know that they have a big petrochemical industry. So they have some serious sort of business interest in this. And of course, it would not be in their interest if, you know, the large majority of states were to suddenly agree on rules that would reduce plastic production somehow. So they were worried about this. So they were the first one to raise this, uh, together with a few other countries, Bahrain, Qatar, some other sort of neighboring countries in the region.

So they first raised this, and then also China came and also started discussing this a little bit like, where is this process going? We don’t know really where it’s going. Is this going to have an impact on our industry? Is this going to have an impact on our economic interests, like these questions coming that gave China a feeling that, okay, we need to have, you know, try to put a hand on the emergency brake or keep our options open. So they also intervened in that debate.

And then finally India, which was very, very strong. I mean, they didn’t participate much in the INC. They were quite absent. They participated via a video link from from capital. But towards the very end of the meeting, they took the floor, to say that the voting rights, the rules stipulating the voting rights of regional economic integration organizations will have implications for the decision making rule. And we want, therefore, to have a debate about the decision making rule. And we want to replace the option of taking substantive decisions to a vote with a consensus requirement. We don’t want any decisions on matters of substance to be made by a majority. They made very clear.

So these were, I believe, the main actors that intervened in this debate and sort of raised this, this issue initially in Uruguay.

Anja Krieger
So basically we have a situation where we start the card game without being quite sure what the rules are, and then the rules are being discussed instead of the subject matter, actually. What was the result of this first meeting? Did they accomplish anything in the end?

Magnus Løvold
That’s a good question. And to be honest with you, I don’t think very much was accomplished at the first negotiation session in Uruguay. And that was a little bit concerning, I think. Of course, at the beginning of a negotiation, it will always be a little bit unclear. First, all the countries, they will have to set out what sort of their starting position, their main approach to these negotiations, what they want the treaty to contain, what they don’t want it to contain. So it was clear that it would be a little bit vague and maybe not produce amazing outcomes. We hadn’t expected that. But when you sort of look back afterwards and like, okay, there was a week long discussion, a lot of countries came there, spent a lot of time, and you’re wondering what actually came out of this? It was very difficult to sort of pin down exactly what was the result, right? Apart from, you know, states coming together and having a discussion about the possibility and what the potential content of a treaty on plastic pollution should be.

But we had some decisions made. The committee was able to elect, Gustavo Meza Quadra as chair of the committee, which I think was important. A committee needs a chair, needs leadership. So that was an important decision, although that wasn’t so easy. Because Peru, which is Gustavo Meza Quadra’s country, they wanted to be the chair of this. But Ecuador also wanted to be the chair. So they had not been able to agree amongst themselves who should chair the committee. Everybody had agreed that Grulac, the group of Latin American and Caribbean countries, would sort of chair this committee, but they hadn’t been able to agree amongst themselves.

So what they decided in the end was a sort of a Solomonic solution, where they would split the chairmanship so that Peru would chair the first three sessions of the INC, and then Ecuador would chair the last two sessions in 2024. This is the next coming up now, and also the diplomatic conference. So that was important that they agreed on that.

And then I guess you could call it an outcome that they did agree to so-called provisionally apply the rules of procedure. Now, this is not really an agreement as such, because the aim was to adopt the rules of procedure, to have that sort of cleared away, that it would be clear how the EU would cast its votes, that it would be clear how the committee would make its decisions. But they weren’t able to agree on that. But they sort of accepted all of them to provisionally apply at least the remaining rules.

And then there was also a decision, you know, I think that a lot of countries, they sort of felt we need a little bit more clarity on what the options are here. We’re talking about a treaty on plastic pollution. There’s so many ideas about what this may contain and what it may not contain. So we need some options basically to try to structure our discussions a little bit. So they also made a decision to ask the Secretariat of the committee to develop a paper on the potential options of sort of provisions in the new treaty. So that was also a decision made that there were tasked the Secretariat to do that, and that they would invite submissions from member states to sort of inform that paper.

I think that was that was it really, you know, no, not real any clarity on what the treaty would contain, no substantive decisions really made. But I think at the same time, when you look more broadly at it, you saw that, you know, the large support for the High Ambition Coalition, the large support that, you know, we were able to see paying attention to what members were saying in the in the meeting. So that, I mean, there is actually a significant support here for the type of global rules or specific control measures that we think is necessary to make this treaty a success. So in a sense, yeah, not entirely disappointing, but also didn’t sort of set a clear direction for the negotiations either.

Anja Krieger
So they basically decided to continue to play the game and hoping that the rules would sort themselves out in the process. Right?

Magnus Løvold
Yeah, well… yes! In a sense, that is way to put it. Yeah, to continue to play the game without having agreed on all the rules. And then some kind of consultations, the chair offered to continue consultations on this to try to resolve the matter. But there was no clarity on what kind of consultations and when necessarily that would be, you know, lead to an agreement. So not a lot of clarity. So yeah, you’re absolutely right. They continued to sort of try to play the game, but without having agreed exactly how they would make decisions. At the end of the day, when it came to, you know, actually adopting this treaty or making decisions about what it should actually contain in terms of legally binding provisions.

Anja Krieger
Then by April of 2023, the Secretariat of the INC produced an option paper for the treaty that was 37 pages long. And you said, it sounds like written by ChatGPT at first glance. Could you tell us why?

Magnus Løvold
Yeah. So this paper was based on on submissions made by states and states and observers, and they made a lot of suggestions for what the treaty could contain along the sort of what we can call the full life cycle of plastics. So they were suggestions that this would, you know, regulate the production or maybe cap the production of primary plastic polymers to more specifically, maybe regulate the production of specific plastic products or chemicals, harmful chemicals or polymers, or design restrictions or design requirements on the production and reuse, recycling, waste management, all these things. It was all put in there, cleanup of legacy plastic pollution. It was all sort of just put together in one document. But it didn’t really provide much clarity in terms of how these pieces would fit together, right, and how they would provide for an effective treaty on plastic pollution that would, if implemented, actually lead to a solution to the plastics crisis. That was not clear. It wasn’t sort of clear from that paper.

And I think, in addition, what made me a little bit concerned was that there was no reflection on whether all these measures that had been proposed and then put into this paper, whether they should be legally binding or just voluntary measures. All the measures were introduced, as you know, you could do this, this could be a voluntary measure or this could be a legally binding measure. For me, that should have been like discussed, like there are some measures that where it makes sense to maybe have them as voluntary options. But in the context of developing a legally binding instrument, of course, some of the measures would necessarily have to be legally binding, but that was sort of kept entirely open in the potential options paper with no real discussion. And no reflection. And so I felt when reading it that it didn’t really provide the committee with a kind of clarity that it needed to enter into a more substantive discussion at the next INC in Paris.

Theme – Plink by Dorian Roy

Anja Krieger
That leads us to Paris, and to the summer of 2023! There was quite some drama, even ahead of time. But more on that in the next episode. In part two of our conversation, Magnus and I will revisit the negotiations in France. You’ll hear about the struggles there, and the magical diplomacy that solved them all – sort of.

Magnus Løvold (collage)
Paris…the Paris session of the plastic pollution negotiations, what we call the INC2, was a very difficult session. (…) And in the end, after a lot of debate and a lot of back and forth, they did manage to agree on a so-called interpretive statement. (…)They agreed to disagree, and they put that down in a text that they decided on. Like we agree to disagree on to enable us to move forward. (…) But of course, a lot of time had been wasted. And of course, it didn’t really resolve the issue. It fudged the issue.

Anja Krieger
That’s up soon, on Plastisphere. Hope you’ll join us again next time! The music is by Dorian Roy, cover by Maren von Stockhausen, and all production is by me, Anja Krieger. Plastisphere is an independent one-woman production. If you liked what you heard, please help me cover the costs, by going to If my episodes inform your own work or reporting on the topic, please credit my podcast. You’ll help me continue this project. Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.

Read our guest’s blog: “Points of Order” – independent reporting on multilateral processes, treaty-making and diplomacy” by Magnus Løvold and Torbjørn Graff Hugo.