WTO Informal Dialogue Calls for Ministerial Declaration on Plastics

The Informal Dialogue on Plastics Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade currently has 16 co-sponsors. Ambassador Chad Blackman of Barbados, one of the Dialogue’s co-coordinators, said the 21 June discussions have “generated some key elements for formulating an MC12 outcome and taking the dialogue forward”.

World Trade Organization (WTO) members participating in the Informal Dialogue on Plastics Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade (IDP) explored ways to strengthen policy coherence through collective approaches and improved technical assistance to developing countries such as to support global efforts to reduce plastic waste and achieve a circular plastics economy. To guide further action, participants called for a declaration at the WTO’s Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12).

A group of WTO members launched the IDP in November 2020 to “explore how improved trade cooperation, within the rules and mechanisms of the WTO, could contribute to domestic, regional, and global efforts to reduce plastics pollution and transition to a more circular and environmentally sustainable global plastics economy.” These efforts seek to complement existing international processes. Open to all WTO members, the Informal Dialogue currently has 16 co-sponsors: Australia; Barbados; Cabo Verde; Canada; the Central African Republic; China; Ecuador; Fiji; the Gambia; Jamaica; Kazakhstan; Morocco; New Zealand; Switzerland; Thailand; and the UK. Australia, Barbados, China, Ecuador, Fiji, and Morocco serve as IDP co-coordinators.

Among the key topics identified by the proponents for discussion in 2021 are: improving transparency; monitoring trade trends; promoting best practices; strengthening policy coherence; identifying the scope for collective approaches; assessing capacity and technical assistance needs; and cooperating with other international processes and efforts.

During a meeting on 21 June 2021, Ambassador Jose Valencia of Ecuador and Ambassador Chad Blackman of Barbados invited participants to examine policy coherence, explore collective approaches, and assess developing countries’ capacity-building needs. Noting the importance of determining how trade policy can complement international, regional, and domestic efforts to address plastics pollution, the two co-coordinators said members “should keep in mind” recently adopted policies and milestones to be achieved in 2021, including the Glasgow Climate Change Conference (COP 26) and the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15).

Another IDP co-coordinator, Ambassador Chenggang Li of China, invited members to start deliberating on the structure of a ministerial declaration, which, he said, could include key results from IDP discussions and a “roadmap towards achieving concrete outcomes at MC13.” He highlighted the importance of ensuring synergies between the IDP and other environmental sustainability initiatives at the WTO, such as the Structured Discussions on Trade and Environmental Sustainability (TESSD), as well as international processes outside the Organization.

The WTO Secretariat identified the need for a “comprehensive mapping” of the plastics value chain and for analysis of the opportunities and challenges associated with this process. The Secretariat reported that following the IDP’s launch, WTO members’ engagement in discussions on plastics had “quadrupled,” including in meetings of the Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE), with many members sharing studies and experiences on marine litter, plastics pollution, and public-private partnerships (PPPs) in the transition to a circular economy, among other topics.

Members heard guest speakers’ presentations of recent studies, projects, and lessons learned in addressing plastics pollution. The EU informed participants about its policies to support the transition to a circular plastics economy, including the EU plastics strategy, the single-use plastic directive, and the zero-pollution strategy. Norway highlighted a study on “the role of regional instruments in strengthening cooperation on marine plastics pollution,” and called for reaching “a new global agreement.”

During discussion, members:

  • agreed that the plastics issue is a global challenge requiring multilateral solutions where the WTO could play a central role, including by addressing the inconsistency of policies along the plastics value chain;
  • noted the importance of starting negotiations on a global plastics agreement under the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) while ensuring IDP discussions support any international outcome;
  • called for coordinated efforts to restrict unnecessary single-use plastics and encourage the use of eco-friendly alternatives; and
  • emphasized the need to strengthen technical assistance for least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing States (SIDS).

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said the WTO could provide “much-needed” trade regulations on the production and consumption of plastics goods. The Graduate Institute Geneva offered recommendations on how international trade policy could help address plastic pollution through, for example, trade bans for single-use plastics and eliminating trade barriers on non-plastic substitutes.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) suggested that future work under the Informal Dialogue could be structured according to four objectives where trade policy could play a key role: shrinking the global market for problematic plastics; growing the market for substitutes and recycled plastics; improving access to technologies to manage plastics and plastic waste; and reforming subsidies to fossil fuels, which likely help to keep the price of virgin plastic low.

Ambassador Blackman said the discussions have “generated some key elements for formulating an MC12 outcome and taking the dialogue forward.” He said the next IDP meeting, chaired by Australia, will focus on the MC12 outcome, and invited all members to join. [WTO Press Release]

This article was originally shared by IISD.