Countries are negotiating a global plastics treaty. It won’t be easy.


Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Michael Birnbaum, a climate solutions reporter for The Washington Post, wrote the top of today’s newsletter.

🚨 Below we have a scoop about a new national monument in Nevada that President Biden is poised to designate. But first:

Work is starting on the biggest environmental treaty since Paris. It aims to tackle plastic pollution.

Everyone agrees plastics are a problem — the question is what to do about them. 

They can be found floating in the Arctic Sea, coursing through our bodies and billowing through the air. 

Now, representatives from more than 150 countries are gathered in Uruguay this week to begin work on what backers hope will be an international treaty to reduce plastic pollution. Advocates hope to create plans to reduce plastic production, make recycling easier and stem the vast tide of plastics that flow into the world’s oceans. 

The goal, many of them hope, is to eliminate plastics pollution by 2040, stopping the conveyor belt of what the United Nations Environment Program says is a garbage truck of plastic dumped into the world’s oceans every minute. The policymakers, along with civil society and industry representatives, are meeting in the beach town of Punta del Este for the first of five meetings that are scheduled to run to the end of 2024 to prepare a treaty. 

“A number of countries have said this is the most important environmental treaty negotiation in years. It speaks to what our ambitions are for this agreement. We’re facing a triple planetary crisis where the earth is far beyond safe limits for climate change. We are facing massive biodiversity loss and we are facing unsustainable levels of pollution. Plastics sit at the nexus of that crisis,” said Carroll Muffett, the president of the Center for International Environmental Law, by phone from Uruguay. 

Among the elements under discussion: reducing the hazardous chemicals used to make plastics, making them less hazardous and easier to recycle. Capping plastics production is also on the table — which would in turn make it more economical to reuse the plastic that already exists, since right now it is usually cheaper to make new plastic than to recycle it. 

And representatives are also set to discuss the fate of waste pickers, the millions of people who work in the informal economy, mostly in the Global South, who hunt for reusable material in landfills and other collections of debris. Their representatives say that any plastics agreement needs to take them into account, and help them transition to other ways to make a living.

But while there is broad agreement that plastics are a problem, there are divisions about how to handle the issue. Some countries — including the 27 nations of the European Union, South Korea, Colombia and Canada — favor global bans on certain kinds of plastics, along with binding rules governing the entire life cycle of plastic. 

Other countries — including the United States — are proposing a very different approach, advocating that countries come up with national plans to address the problem. That would emulate the model created by the United Nations approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions — and it would also make any effort more politically palatable in Washington. But critics say that plans determined by individual countries as opposed to global bans aren’t going to be enough to meet the moment.

The State Department said its approach would have teeth.

“As I made clear in my national statement at the INC: ‘[t]o achieve this 2040 goal, we must develop a legally-binding instrument that takes an ambitious, innovative, and country-driven approach to combating plastic pollution throughout its lifecycle.‘ While the United States advocates for a country-driven approach, any national action plans should be mandatory, not voluntary,” Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Monica Medina said in a statement.

The Biden administration has thrown its weight behind the plastics negotiation, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for a global deal last year not long after the COP26 gathering in Glasgow, Scotland. 

Some civil society representatives, including Muffett, said that the U.S. approach won’t lead to dramatic enough change to address the plastics problem. 

“If you hear the U.S. delegation speak from the floor, they use the word ambition a lot, but what the U.S. is pushing for is not a globally binding set of commitments where we set a global goal to limit plastic production and phase out toxic products,” Muffett said. “What is politically achievable in the U.S. may not align with what the science says is needed to address the rising tides of plastic.”

Update: This section has been updated to include a statement from Medina and to clarify that the division between the United States and some other countries is over whether there should be global limits and requirements on plastics and plastics pollution, or whether, as the United States government advocates, each country should develop its own legally-binding plans.

Biden to honor tribes with Nevada national monument, his biggest yet

President Biden is preparing a proclamation that could designate nearly 450,000 acres of land near Spirit Mountain in Nevada as a national monument under the 1906 Antiquities Act, Dan Michalski reports for The Post. 

The expected designation, which would probably rank as the largest act of conservation that Biden will undertake this term, enjoys broad support from Native American tribes, local officials, and environmental and wildlife groups. But some clean energy advocates and companies have expressed concern that it could undermine wind and solar development in the area.

The Fort Mojave and 11 other tribes consider the mountain — known as Avi Kwa Ame (ah-VEE-kwah-may) in Mojave — a sacred site from which their ancestors emerged. “If it’s not protected, our generation will not have done our job,” said Tim Williams, chair of the tribal council. 

On Wednesday, the chief of staff to Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) met with an official from the White House Council on Environmental Quality to discuss the proclamation, according to an individual familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. Sisolak has not taken a public position on the monument.

Earlier this month, Frank DeRosa, vice president for policy and public affairs for the solar energy firm Avantus, asked the agency to consider “a modest request” for a small adjustment to the nearly finalized preservation map that “avoids all cultural and environmentally sensitive areas” so that renewable energy companies can access transmission lines.

Colleagues remember Rep. McEachin as environmental justice warrior

Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) died Monday at 61 after fighting colorectal cancer and its secondary effects since 2013. He had represented Virginia’s 4th District, which stretches from Richmond to the North Carolina line, since 2017, The Post’s Laura Vozzella and Meagan Flynn report. 

During his time on Capitol Hill, McEachin earned a reputation as an impassioned advocate for addressing climate change and environmental justice, with a focus on how pollution has historically burdened disadvantaged communities. 

McEachin “fought to reduce pollution and secure clean air and water for every American, especially those living in communities disproportionately harmed by the climate crisis,” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, said in a statement.

House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who co-sponsored the Environmental Justice for All Act with McEachin, said in a statement that “he leaves behind an immense legacy … and I will do my best to usher that legacy forward in his spirit.”

A special election for McEachin’s replacement will be called at a date chosen by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R). Until then, his office said it will remain open to serve constituents.

Senate environment panel deadlocks on EPA air office nominee

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Tuesday deadlocked 10-10 along party lines on the nomination of Joseph Goffman to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s air office, a key role for implementing the administration’s climate agenda. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) must now decide whether to file a discharge petition to advance the nomination to the Senate floor. Goffman, who has been the acting leader of the office since January 2021, was nominated by President Biden for the permanent position in March. 

The tie vote comes after a long delay, with many Republican lawmakers voicing concern over Goffman’s role in writing an Obama-era rule to slash carbon emissions from power plants, known as the Clean Power Plan. The Supreme Court ruled in June that the agency had overstepped its authority in crafting the regulation.

Treasury Dept. issues guidance on climate law’s labor standards

The Treasury Department on Tuesday released the first round of guidance on how businesses can meet certain labor standards to take advantage of enhanced clean energy tax credits in the recently passed climate law.

To qualify for the tax incentives in the climate law, dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act, firms need to pay workers a “prevailing wage” and employ a certain number of apprentices from registered apprenticeship programs, as The Climate 202 reported Tuesday. The initial guidance clarifies how firms can meet these requirements, which will apply to projects for which construction begins on or after Jan. 29.

On a Tuesday call with reporters, John Podesta, a senior adviser to President Biden who recently joined the White House to oversee implementation of the climate law, said the administration is “working diligently” to issue additional guidance by the end of the year.

It is “a priority for all of us to move as quickly as possible,” Podesta added.

Macron to promote nuclear energy in U.S., as industry faces crisis in France

As French President Emmanuel Macron makes the rounds in Washington this week for the first state visit of the Biden administration, he is expected to tout his plans for a nuclear energy “renaissance” in an effort to help boost the development and export of his country’s technology, Rick Noack reports for The Post. 

But there could hardly be a more awkward time to tout France’s reputation as a nuclear power leader: Roughly 40 percent of French nuclear power plants are currently offline after safety concerns and delayed inspections forced their closure. While Macron was preparing to travel in the opposite direction, American and Canadian contractors were flying to France this week to prevent its nuclear-reliant power grid from collapsing.

Sherri Crump

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