We need a legally binding treaty to make plastic pollution history

File 20190314 28496 1l9vu3m.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The world urgently needs to move past plastic. Veronika Meduna

A powerful marriage between the fossil fuel and plastic industries threatens to exacerbate the global plastic pollution crisis. The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) estimates the next five years will see a 33-36% surge in global plastics production.

This will undermine all current efforts to manage plastic waste. It is time to stop trying (and failing) to bail out the bathtub. Instead, we need to turn off the tap.

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) has recognised plastic pollution as a “rapidly increasing serious issue of global concern that needs an urgent global response”. An expert group formed last year proposed an international treaty on plastic pollution as the most effective response.

Together with Giulia Carlini, at CIEL, I was part of a 30-strong group of non-governmental organisations within this expert group attending the UNEA summit this week to discuss how we can start making plastic pollution history.

Unfortunately, despite strong statements from developing countries, including the Pacific Island states, a small group of countries stalled negotiations. This effectively turns back the clock on ambitious global action, and leaves us more desperate than ever for a real solution to our plastic problem.

Why we need a treaty

The first step is to reject the many false solutions that pop up in our news feeds.

Recycling is one of those false solutions. The scale of plastic production is too big for recycling alone. Of all the plastics produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9% have been recycled. This figure is set to plummet as China and a growing number of developing countries are rejecting plastic waste from Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the world.

China had been a major destination for Australia and New Zealand’s recyclable waste. China’s shutdown meant Australia lost the market for a third of its plastic waste. It also left New Zealand with 400 tonnes of stockpiled plastic waste last year.

With limited domestic recycling facilities, Australia and New Zealand are seeking new markets. Last year, New Zealand sent about 250,000 tonnes of plastic to landfill, and a further 6,300 tonnes to Malaysia for recycling. But now Malaysia is also rejecting other countries’ hazardous plastic waste.

Sending our platic to Asia is not a solution. EPA/Diego Azubel, CC BY-SA

Even if we manage to find new plastic recycling markets, there is another problem. Recycling is not as safe as you might think. Flame retardants and other toxins are added to many plastics, and these compounds find a second life when plastics are recycled into new products, including children’s toys.

Plastic-to-energy is a false solution

What about burning plastic waste to generate energy? Think again. Incineration is expensive, can take decades for investors to break even. It is the opposite of a “zero waste” approach and locks countries into a perpetual cycle of producing and importing waste to “feed the beast”. And incineration leaves a legacy of contaminated air, soil, and water.

Producing lower-grade materials from plastic waste (such as roads, fenceposts and park benches) is not the solution either. No matter where we put it, plastic doesn’t go away. It just breaks into ever smaller pieces with a greater potential for harm in air, water, soil and marine and freshwater ecosystems.

This is why researchers are paying more attention to the less visible hazards posed when micro (less than 5mm long) and nano (less than 100 nanometres long) sized plastics carry pathogens, invasive species and persistent organic pollutants. They have found that plastics can emit methane contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Tyres wear down into microplastics which find their way into the ocean. When plastics break down to nanoparticles, they are small enough to pass through cell walls. Our clothes release plastic microfibres into water from washing machines.

Plastic is truly global

Plastic pollution moves readily around the globe. It travels through trade, on winds, river and tidal flows, and in the guts of migrating birds and mammals. We don’t always know which toxic chemicals are in them, nor their recycled content. Plastic pollution can end up thousands of kilometres from the source.

This makes plastic pollution a matter of international concern. It cannot be solved solely within national borders or regions. A global, legally binding treaty with clear targets and standards is the real game-changer we urgently need.

The NGO component of UNEA’s expert group recognised an international treaty as the most effective response. The proposed treaty has the potential to capture the full life cycle of plastics by focusing on prevention, right at the top of the waste hierarchy.

The Zero Waste hierarchy. Zero Waste Europe

These solutions could include restricting the volume of new or “virgin” plastics in products, banning avoidable plastics (such as single-use plastic bags and straws), and curbing the use of toxic additives.

More than 90 civil society organisations around the world and a growing number of countries have indicated early support for a treaty. Australia and New Zealand have not.

By Trisia Farrelly. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Both sides now

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — oh all right, it was January 15, 2003 — I was walking down the street in Oslo. In fact, this street:

I was keeping my head down because, as you can see in the picture, the streets in Oslo can be icy. I had lived in a cold place before — Boulder, Colorado, — but in Boulder, after any snowfall everyone rushes outside and sweeps their sidewalk. It made for quite a festive air. But in Oslo, I never saw any sweeping of sidewalks, and the snow turned to ice. It was a bit before 9am and the sun was not yet up. Oslo lies at 60º north, and 15 January only provides 6 hours 45 minutes of day. However, the sky was clear and it looked liked it was going to be a fine day. 

Fortunately, however, I did at some point look up, and what I saw made me stop in my tracks. It was something enormous, spectacular, brilliant, and other-worldly. It was this:

This photo comes from that same day’s paper, which identified the phenomenon as mother-of-pearl clouds. Today, these are a bit better known, but at that point I knew for certain that I had no idea what I was seeing. But I knew it was something remarkable.

Les Cowley at “Atmospheric Optics” writes

Nacreous clouds, sometimes called mother-of-pearl clouds, are rare but once seen are never forgotten. They are mostly visible within two hours after sunset or before dawn when they blaze unbelievably bright with vivid and slowly shifting iridescent colours. They are filmy sheets slowly curling and uncurling, stretching and contracting in the semi-dark sky. Compared with dark scudding low altitude clouds that might be present, nacreous clouds stand majestically in almost the same place – an indicator of their great height. 

Now, not only are mother-of-pearl clouds a stunning phenomenon, that indeed I have seen only once but have never forgotten, they are a highly visible sign of climate change. The first known sightings were in Sweden in 1870. Sightings spread to Norway – where they may have inspired The Scream –, and then to Britain in 1884. No more were seen anywhere in the world until 1923. In 1971 they were so unknown in Britain that a scientific article was written about the appearance of a single cloud. There were widespread sightings in Britain in 1999, 2000, 2012, 2016, and 2017; stunning pictures of these clouds are easily found.

Mother-of-pearl clouds form high up, in the stratosphere, from 15-25km in height. They require extremely cold temperatures to form, below the freezing point of water, which at that height is around –85ºC. The greenhouse effect, which traps infrared radiation in the lower atmosphere and heats it, also leads to cooling of the stratosphere. It’s cooled by about 2 degrees since 1958, periodically interrupted by volcanoes whose high-altitude dust particles absorb heat:

Source: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, State of the Climate

It would make a nice story if I could say that was a road-to-Damascus moment for me, a moment that switched me from knowing about climate change, to caring. Alas, that didn’t happen. Looking back, the change was a surprisingly lengthy process. What did the trick in the end was a whole cascade of large-scale changes happening all over the place: the disastrous collapse of the north pole sea ice in 2007; the slowing of the Gulf Stream reported in 2015 causing high-tide flooding; the successive collapses of ice sheets in the Antarctic peninsula, which started in the 1990s but seemed to form a clear pattern by 2010; and the change in the behaviour of the northern jet stream, leading to the now well-known “Omega block” linked to extreme weather of all sorts in the United States.

But perhaps it started with the clouds.

Robert McLachlan


1. Stanford, John L., and John S. Davis. “A century of stratospheric cloud reports: 1870–1972.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 55.3 (1974): 213-219. Backhouse, T.W., 1885. Iridescent clouds. Nature31(792), p.192.; Piazzi-Smyth, C., 1884. Indescent Clouds. Nature31(790), p.148.

2. McIntosh, D. H. “Mother-of-pearl cloud over Scotland” Weather 27.1 (1972): 14-26.

3. Les Cowley, Atmospheric Optics, https://www.atoptics.co.uk/highsky/nacr1.htm

4. The discovery of the ozone hole in 1985 led to a renewed interest in these clouds. In 1988 a distinction was drawn between two types. Type I contain water, nitric and/or sulphuric acid and are a source of ozone depletion, and form at temperatures below –78ºC. Type II, shown above, contain water only and form at temperatures below –85ºC. See Hamill, Patrick, R. P. Turco, and O. B. Toon. “On the growth of nitric and sulfuric acid aerosol particles under stratospheric conditions.” Journal of atmospheric chemistry 7.3 (1988): 287-315.

5. Poole, Lamont R., and M. Patrick McCormick. “Polar stratospheric clouds and the Antarctic ozone hole.” Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 93.D7 (1988): 8423-8430.

6. Paul Vitello, “Joseph Farman, 82, Is Dead; Discovered Ozone Hole”, New York Times, May 18, 2013. 

7. A related type of high-altitude cloud – also first observed in the late 19th century – is the noctilucent, or night-shining, cloud. These are even higher, at 80km, and may also be linked to climate change, as higher methane levels break down to water vapour. Every record of what we’ve seen in the sky has been the same. As far back in human existence as we know, among the Egyptians, the Native Americans and the Chinese, there is no record that clouds glow in the dark. – Scott Bailey, University of Alaska. Their initial observation in 1885 (from several sites in Europe including the UK, just a few months after the first appearance there of mother-of-pearl clouds) may have been related to the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, which pumped large amounts of water into the upper atmosphere. See Thomas, Gary E., et al. “Relation between increasing methane and the presence of ice clouds at the mesopause.” Nature 338.6215 (1989): 490.

8. For the changes in the northern jet stream, see Francis, J. and Skific, N., 2015. Evidence linking rapid Arctic warming to mid-latitude weather patterns. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences373(2045), p.20140170.

Farms, forests, and fossil fuels

That’s the title of the new report from Simon Upton, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. In a pattern we’ve become used to, James Shaw, Minister for Climate Change, immediately released a statement to say that the report’s main recommendation – that forests not be allowed to offset fossil emissions – was not on the table. But the same day on the radio, the interviewer Guyon Espiner appeared to put Shaw on the spot:

Espiner: [Apart from the Emissions Trading Scheme and the Zero Carbon Bill] What are you doing to bring down emissions?

Shaw: Well, I mean, there are things right across the economy that we’re doing…
Espiner: Just name a couple of big ones
Shaw: OK, we stopped new exploration of offshore oil and gas…
Espiner: The advice was that that wasn’t going to reduce emissions at all.
Shaw: The advice was incorrect.
Espiner: What’s your advice?
Shaw: 100% of the gas that you burn adds to global warming…
Espiner: What is the year that it will begin reducing our emissions?
Shaw: I can’t tell you a year.
Espiner: It’s not terribly convincing, is it?
Shaw: The whole point is that fossil fuels are not our future, over the coming decades we want to phase that out
Espiner: What else [are you doing to reduce emissions?]
Shaw: The main thing we’re focussing on is reforms to the ETS [mentions ZCB again], the Green Investment Fund, the work that Genter and Twyford have been doing on transport that will shift $14b into public transport, walking, and cycling…
Espiner: So what are your projections about when we could begin to see our emissions decline because of those things?
Shaw: We’re estimating that they’ll peak sometime around the mid-2020s and then decline from that point on.
Espiner: So we’ve got another 5, 6, 7 years of emissions increasing.
Shaw: It could take that long, and that’s why planting trees in the near term is the best option that we’ve got.

Perhaps what Shaw means there is that planting trees is the best option the Government’s got, or the best option they can get away with. Because accepting that emissions won’t start reducing until the mid-2020s is a big disappointment from a Government that has made climate change a priority.

Simon Upton’s credentials for looking at this issue are rock solid. He was Minister for the Environment in the 1990s, when he first grappled with New Zealand’s response. He’s chaired the OECD round table on the environment and in 2010 was appointed head of the OECD Environment Directorate. His report opens with a moving introduction accepting some responsibility for the situation that New Zealand – and the world – is now in, through his influence on 25 years of global climate change policy. He (almost) admits that he got it wrong in the 1990s, by allowing New Zealand to imagine that other countries would pay us to plant trees. It’s hard not to read the report as an attempt to make amends.

New Zealand has 25 years of experience that shows that planting trees is not a guaranteed method to reduce net emissions, or that that time it buys us will be used to stop burning fossil fuels. So far, we haven’t faced up to that. The report studies one way of dealing with the issue.

If forestry were only allowed to offset farming emissions, and not fossil emissions, then (under a falling cap on emissions, as is currently planned) carbon prices would rise higher and fossil emissions would fall faster. The effect on net emissions would depend on how the overall target for the biological sector.

Relying on forestry is risky for other reasons too. Upton made this point strongly in an interview with Carbon News:

Using trees as a low-cost way of avoiding making reductions in gross fossil carbon emissions is not a good idea. Blanketing the country in pine trees could leave New Zealand more vulnerable as forests are susceptible to fire and to diseases. The right trees need to be planted in the right place or problems emerge – for example with logjams and silt runoff from harvesting forests on steep slopes.

It’s also vulnerable to the precise method of carbon accounting. Upton’s report, like last year’s report from the Productivity Commission, relies on a model from Motu that credits pine plantations with sequestering 32 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year – an enormous amount. Just 2.5 million hectares of plantation, which is a lot but is feasible, would offset our entire gross emissions, fossil and biological. The catch is that this only last for 21 years. After that, the sequestration rate is counted at 0, even though (to keep storing carbon) the forest has to be maintained forever. This accounting method front-loads all the gains, and puts the risks and costs of all future forest maintenance on to future generations.

There are other details hidden in the modelling, too. Currently in New Zealand, “Export intensive trade exposed” industries get a 90% discount on their ETS obligations, making them essentially nil for practical purposes. The idea behind this is that there is no point making these industries uneconomic in New Zealand, forcing them out of business and shifting emissions to other countries. The Government may soon bring agriculture into the ETS at a 95% discount. However, in the models in this report, “Free allocation was initially set at 95 per cent for biological emissions from agriculture. In all cases, free allocation diminished over time before being phased out.”

This phase-out is supposed to be implemented as the ETS is reviewed over time, perhaps on the recommendation of the Climate Change Commission, but it will clearly be a political hot potato however it is handled. Thus, our model of decarbonisation requires that all countries decarbonise in a smooth, harmonious way.

Perhaps inevitably, the report is being incorporated into the debate on the future of agriculture in New Zealand. Its other main point, that we need to stop burning fossil fuels, is being obscured. In both the conventional and the proposed models in the report, this has barely started by 2032, and all the heavy lifting is left to the 2040s. In fact, to limit warming to 1.5ºC, we need to cut fossil fuel emissions by 6% per year if we start now. That would mean cuts of 2.4 million tonnes of CO2 per year, equivalent to taking 1.2 million petrol cars off the road each year.

Part of the report’s lack of urgency is related to the choice of a 2075 timeline:

It was also decided to investigate a time horizon out to 2075, rather than 2050. While 2050 has been the subject of political commitments, there is no magic about the year 2050. At the international level, the Paris Agreement simply indicates the need to balance sources and sinks in the second half of this century.

Except that’s not the whole story of the Paris Agreement. The crucial clause 4 states:

In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2 [Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C], Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.

Equity, and the 1.5ºC limit, are not mentioned in the report. They require much stronger action to start cutting fossil fuel emissions now.

Robert McLachlan

Mike Joy tells it like it is

Victoria University’s Mike Joy sums up a lifetime of experience:

“I hope that through my role at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies I can do something to reduce the cognitive dissonance that is impeding action. I am convinced that one big reason the required changes are not made is because people are not aware of how bad things are. Thus, politicians and policy makers avoid the required changes, because they know they will be rejected by voters, because voters lack the necessary sense of urgency. I want to push for real change through information dissemination; and I want to challenge others, especially academics, to be more outspoken.”

Citizen climate action

Great initiative in Auckland described here by Heidi O’Callahan at Greater Auckland: The Climate Action Plan. Citizens and local groups are writing in on how Auckland can rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure Auckland is prepared for the impacts of climate change. Amongst other bold targets set in 2012, Auckland’s goal was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 10-20% by 2020; instead they have increased. More ideas and action are needed!

The public is ready for environmental change. Now we need a lead from politicians

Scientists talk of “tipping points”, the point at which the environment changes from one stable state to another, often abruptly, causing significant disruption. I believe New Zealand may be on the cusp of a tipping point – not in the state of its environment, but rather in terms of people’s awareness of the gravity of the environmental issues we face.

Despite our much-vaunted (but somewhat tarnished) “clean, green” image, we face some major environmental challenges. Many of our indigenous species of animals and plants remain under serious threat in spite of efforts to control pests and halt the decline of indigenous habitat. Many of our waterways and aquifers are under severe pressure from pollutant-laden discharges and increased extraction for irrigation.

New Zealand’s response to climate change to date has been characterised either by inaction (the “wait and see” approach) or potentially effective measures (such as the emissions trading scheme) considerably weakened by the meddling of subsequent governments.

But in the past few years, chinks of light have been starting to penetrate through the stubborn reluctance of successive governments to risk political power for the sake of the environment. Partly this is generational – the new leadership of both main parties are in their 30s and 40s, representing a generation that is less inclined to see environment as subservient to the economy.

But there has also been a growing public realisation that values that we hold dear, such as the ability to swim at our local swimming spot, or to drink water from the tap without falling ill, are in jeopardy. There is also a growing recognition of the inherent unfairness of ordinary people shouldering the burden of environmental degradation (whether it be the cost of remediation of degraded environments or the reduced ability to enjoy the environment) while others profit from the exploitation of “public goods”, such as fresh water.

Nevertheless, as a recently colonised nation, the pioneering mentality remains strong, where private property rights and personal freedoms predominate over values such as the collective good or social licence. (By way of contrast, in Japan, the subject of much of my previous research, rice farmers were traditionally compelled to co-operate with each other to guarantee an equitable and ongoing share of the limited freshwater resource, so vital to wet-rice agriculture.)

In Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand, I trace the history of environmental politics since the nationwide campaign of 1969 to stop the government from raising the level of one of our most spectacular lakes. Since then, environmental governance has progressed markedly. Whereas 50 years ago, there was no government body dedicated to environmental policy, there are now three agencies with major responsibilities in this area. And there is a body of law relating to environmental decision-making and governance, central to which is the Resource Management Act, hailed internationally as ground-breaking at the time of its enactment. Scientific knowledge, public awareness, and the public’s ability to participate in environmental decision-making have also grown exponentially.

But at the same time, environmental issues have grown significantly more complex – making them vulnerable to obfuscation, as was so patently seen in the government proposal in 2017 to make 90 per cent of rivers and lakes “swimmable” by 2040. Confusion reigned in the wake of the announcement, and it was finally admitted that the threshold against which “swimmability” was being measured had been lowered.

The signs of a growing impetus for meaningful change to address our most pressing environmental issues are tentative, but nevertheless offer hope. Earlier this year, National Party leader Simon Bridges announced that his party would support the Government’s proposal to establish an independent climate commission (albeit with some caveats). If Bridges honours this promise, it will be a rare example of bipartisan support for environmental policy.

The Government has also announced that it intends to introduce tougher regulations on agricultural land use to curb water pollution. This triggered the usual objections that stricter regulation is not required because farmers are doing good things like planting trees along streams, though these were more muted and less emphatic than in the past. And from being an obscure, “greenie issue” a year or two ago, the concern about the proliferation of plastic waste (particularly its effect on our oceans) is becoming mainstream, with the Government’s plan to ban single-use plastic bags greeted with widespread acceptance.

To make inroads into our most pressing environmental challenges, the Government not only needs to capitalise on newly emerged public concern, but also take up the mantle of leadership and not be afraid to lead public opinion through awareness-raising initiatives encouraging us all to take more responsibility for the environmental impacts of our everyday activities and decisions.

My hope is that a future historian will be able to reflect back on this period, and identify it as a watershed era in terms of environmental awareness and action –  a “tipping point” in environmental history, much like the Save Manapouri Campaign was half a century ago.

By Catherine Knight. This article appeared first on Stuff on 18 September 2018.

Dr Catherine Knight is an environmental historian and author of Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics (Canterbury University Press, 2018), New Zealand’s Rivers: An environmental history (CUP) and Ravaged Beauty: An environmental history of the Manawatu (Dunmore Press). She works as a policy and communications consultant and lives on a farmlet in rural Manawatū.

Cool spinnable warming map

On 6 February, 2018 average temperatures were released by most of the major providers. Harry Stevens at Axios has made a compelling spinnable globe comparing temperatures before and after 1970. A snapshot of the northern hemisphere:

And the southern hemisphere, particularly striking when you live in New Zealand, which has already seen 1°C of warming since 1910:

Go on, give it a spin!

Robert McLachlan