Davos Agenda

Here's why the world needs a treaty on plastic pollution

Plastic pollution suffocates marine habitats and releases greenhouse gases, creating a disastrous feedback loop that speeds up climate change

Plastic pollution suffocates marine habitats and releases greenhouse gases, creating a disastrous feedback loop that speeds up climate change Image: Naja Bertold Jensen for Unsplash

Joshua Amponsem
Founder, Green Africa Youth Organization (GAYO)
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Davos Agenda

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  • Plastic pollution contributes to climate change by suffocating marine habitats and releasing greenhouse gases.
  • Young people must be given a larger role in tackling this, and other, environmental issues.
  • A global plastic pollution treaty would help to set out a common pathway and hold polluters accountable.
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Fixing the problem of plastic waste is an urgent element of the climate emergency, and it’s time we stopped viewing them as two separate issues. Single-use plastics continue to pour into the market. While governments take indirect measures, such as creating taxes and banning plastic bags, that is not enough considering the scale of the crisis. This is a global environmental disaster that already puts communities and livelihoods at risk: around the world, seas are polluted with islands of plastic and drains clogged with waste that trigger diseases and deaths.

Young people are right to feel distrustful and angry about the way they’ve been treated by leaders and businesses who are failing them under the current system. But distrust and anger don’t reduce emissions; we need to work together to solve this emergency.

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Young people can respond to the plastic pollution crisis

Young people need to come together to tackle this issue, and to do so there are two key issues we need to act on now. The first is that we need to understand and communicate that plastic pollution is a climate problem. When we talk about mitigating climate change, the actions are usually land-based, like planting trees, with oceans often forgotten. Oceans, however, are an enormous carbon sink, absorbing at least 25% of all the CO2 we emit.

Last year, more than 8 million tonnes of plastic waste found its way into our oceans. Regardless of where you’re reading this, some of that will have come from your country. It suffocates marine habitats and releases greenhouse gases, both creating a disastrous feedback loop that speeds up climate change and increasing the risk of disasters for coastal communities. We tolerate that for the benefit of company profits.

If we do nothing, more plastics will be produced, which may account for 20% of global oil consumption by 2050. So it’s simple: if we want to sort out the climate crisis, we can’t let plastics choke our waterways. We need to focus on innovative and ambitious solutions that are required to shift mindsets and scale impact. Increasing plastic waste and pollution, caused in large part by single-use packaging, is damaging our planet. There is an urgent need to drive a concerted, systemic shift towards waste prevention approaches, such as reuse, to build a circular economy.

The Ghanaian government has mapped several scenarios for reducing plastic pollution
The Ghanaian government has mapped several scenarios for reducing plastic pollution Image: Ghana National Plastic Action Partnership

The second key issue is that young people must be given a bigger role in addressing critical environmental and societal issues. I work with young people every day, and I see what they’re capable of. I set up Green Africa Youth Organization when I was a student to translate skills, knowledge and passion into opportunities for young people to act on the climate crisis. When they’re given the opportunity, young people can generate real change. In my home country, Ghana, as part of the National Plastic Action Partnership, young people are delivering the zero-waste strategy for Accra, a capital city and region covering almost 5.5 million people.

But opportunities are in short supply. Political and business leaders don’t trust young people to lead climate mitigation strategies, while young people don’t trust leaders and businesses to make a difference on issues like plastic pollution. Both sides need to sit down together, find collaborative solutions and rebuild trust. That starts with stakeholders recognizing that young people have ideas and ability and mustn’t be left out of the room.

We need a global treaty for plastic pollution

Those co-operative conversations need to acknowledge that what we’re doing to curb plastic pollution isn’t enough. Even businesses with strong policies must concede that, globally, their efforts aren’t working.

We can’t simply recycle our way out of filling our oceans with millions of tonnes of plastic every year. We need systemic solutions that address the real and total cost of that pollution. If we continue to prioritize profits, we won’t come up with the right answers. Instead, we must consider all the socioeconomic sacrifices caused by dumped plastic: including community disaster risk, and the psychological impact of living among plastic waste, for example.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

That’s where I believe a plastic pollution treaty can help. A treaty would help to set out a common pathway and hold polluters accountable. It is crucial that such a treaty should be global, because this problem reaches beyond national borders. It needs to embrace a sense of equity and equality – not every country has the same capacity to respond or is as big a contributor to the issue. A treaty should also reflect local rates of plastic production and consumption, and it can’t just be driven through by the global North. People from diverse communities across the world, especially young people, need to be heard and help lead the solution.

A treaty is on the agenda for the reconvened United Nations Environment Assembly in February, and for Davos later this year. Many nation states and more than 90 global businesses are pushing for an agreement, so we need to capitalize on that support.

Solving the combined plastic and climate crisis is going to take a serious amount of teamwork and shared faith. But we can’t give up; we have to act together.

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Related topics:
Davos AgendaClimate Change
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