Delegates from 14 Pacific countries advocating their national and regional priorities at the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4) to develop an international legally binding instrument (ILBI) on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, are running on adrenalin, and a lot of strong coffee, in Ottawa, Canada.

With very little sleep from the late night finishes at the Shaw Centre, Pacific negotiators are in the thick of the action with two days to go, as they frantically work through day and night to streamline the revised draft text, offering their preferences and stating what they do not want in an instrument to address plastic pollution.

The main goal for INC-4 is to have an agreed text by the end of it as the foundation for text-based negotiations to follow. But with more than 170 countries involved, and despite the fact that some countries negotiate as groups, the process is arduous and time consuming. It means long days, long nights, not to mention the freezing temperatures in Ottawa.

“My biggest concern is the limited time we have,” said Veari Kula, of Papua New Guinea (PNG), who is amongst Pacific negotiators at INC-4. Mr Kula has been part of the INC since the first session was held in Uruguay.

“While there is progress in a lot of areas, I’m not optimistic about the timeframe and the time limitation because this may not allow all the states, countries and stakeholders to express their views, state their positions and deliberate more on the key issues. For me that is the biggest concern I have right now.”

According to the original schedule laid out by the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), a treaty should be finished by the end of 2024 when the final INC-5 is held in Korea, from 25 November to 02 December. This makes INC-4 the penultimate stage of the negotiations. The Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Inger Andersen, concedes to the obvious.

“Time is against us – both in terms of finalising the instrument and how much more the planet can take. As we deliberate, plastic pollution continues to gush into ecosystems,” she said. “So, I ask for INC-4 to show energy, commitment, collaboration, and ambition. To make progress. And set the stage for INC-5 to finalise an instrument that will end plastic pollution, once and for all.”

During a stocktake plenary on Friday night, the INC Chair, Ambassador Luis Vayas Valdivieso, and delegates reconvened to look at a way forward for the remainder of the meeting, and considered the establishment of a legal drafting group. There is also talk about intersessional work, amongst other proposals in the programme of work.

“I think the intersessional work programme that is being proposed is very important. This is strongly supported by AOSIS and PSIDS, which I also think is crucial,” said Kula. “I can definitely say that the spirit is there from everyone to work towards getting this instrument done by the end of the year but it’s just the question of how, and the volume of work we have to get through.”

For Kula, he reiterated that a legally binding instrument that promotes a life cycle approach, a predictable, workable and sustainable financial mechanism is top of PNG’s list in Ottawa.

“Financing will always be a key issue for Pacific countries given the size and other challenges we face,” said Kula. “A key point in the discussions here is determining what kind of funding mechanism we are looking at, whether it’s an institutionalised funding mechanism or an independent funding arrangement.

“For PNG, we need funding that is sustainable, one where we can predict that there is money coming in, we need a funding mechanism that can provide funding for short term requests and prioritises things like capacity building, trade and technology transfer. Those are key areas we’ll need financial support to PNG.”

Financing is just one of many balls being tossed in the air in here in Ottawa.

The revised zero draft contains options for treaty text organised in five sections pertaining to: Primary provisions, including the preamble, objectives, principles, and scope; Management of plastic along its lifecycle, including primary polymers, product design, and waste management, as well as extended producer responsibility, trade, and existing pollution.

The options under the microscope also includes Means of Implementation, including financing, capacity building, and technology transfer; tracking implementation, including through reporting, compliance, and international cooperation; and Institutional arrangements, including governing and subsidiary bodies and a secretariat. This is quite a mouthful but all necessary for a treaty to address the magnitude of the plastic pollution crisis to be formulated.

INC Chair, Ambassador Luis Vayas Valdivieso, is optimistic about an agreed text by the end of INC-4, saying: “I am confident that what we have achieved thus far with the structure of work we have proposed, that here in Ottawa, we could have an agreed text.”

But why is the formulation of a multilateral environment agreement (MEA) so difficult? Why does it take so long? Luatutu Andrea Volentras, of SPREP, who is a lawyer by profession, walks us down history, offering a perspective that can perhaps explain the multilateral process.

“You have to understand multilateralism and the way things were in the world, about a hundred years ago was the age of imperialism and colonies and after the second world war there was a new world order and that’s when we set up the United Nations,” he said. “Every country had the right to vote and it was very good for us in the Pacific because we are very small countries, compared to others.

“So in this process, everybody has got a voice at the table but you have to appreciate that with more than 195 countries from around the world, it is not easy to get an agreement. As you can imagine, when it comes to plastic pollution, there is a lot of interest at stake here.

“There are people who extract the oil to make plastic, there are people who export the plastics, there are people like us who take the plastics, and then there is the waste generated from all this. You can’t just come up with an agreement to end plastic pollution in a process that involves more than 195 countries overnight. So that’s why it has taken us four sessions – and possibly more for an instrument to be developed.”

So where to from here?

“It’s not going to be easy because there is a lot of different interests, especially with economic interest at stake but for us in the Pacific, we want to do the right thing,” Volentras said. “We want to generate a healthy and clean environment for our children and their children, and we want to be on the right side of history in this negotiations and that’s why it’s important we are here, we’re engaged and we have faith and do not lose hope that we can come up with a treaty that suits us all.”

The fourth Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment is taking place in Ottawa, Canada, from 23-29 April 2024.