By Nick Nuttall, Director of Communications and Spokesperson, Global Climate Action Summit
For several years, as the former Director of Communications at the UN Environment, I had the privilege to organize and coordinate the annual United Nations’ World Environment Day celebrations, that take place on 5 June and which focus on a topical and compelling environmental theme.
In 2018 this global day of awareness-building and action is spotlighting the rising threat to our world from plastic pollution. Plastics have been the subject of increasing concern over the past few years and a call to global action has been made to tackle the issue head on. Some governments are stepping up action to reduce use and plastic waste—that’s good news, but there is a lot more to do.
The impact of plastic, including micro-plastics on our oceans, wildlife and the food chain have often been the main focus of concern. However, what is less often highlighted are the links between plastics for industrial and consumer use and climate change. Ahead of the Global Climate Action Summit, set to take place in San Francisco in mid-September, we take a dive into some of the data on this subject from The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics, a report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and one of the precious few to actually try to get to grips with the climate change dimension of our plastic world.
Producing plastics uses fossil fuels that generate a significant—and ever increasing—carbon impact:
• Currently, over 90 percent of plastic production is generated using virgin fossil feedstocks such as gas and oil
• This represents an estimated 6 percent of global oil consumption, an impact that may be equivalent to the global oil consumption of the aviation industry
• In 2012, the emissions from this oil use amounted to approximately 390 million tons of CO2
• The greenhouse gas emissions from the production process alone generates an annual ‘natural capital’ cost of $23 billion, a significant footprint on the Earth’s air, water, soils and life forms and expected to become even more dramatic and costly if plastic consumption continues to surge
• By some estimates, the sector may account for 20 percent of total oil consumption and 15 percent of the global annual carbon budget by 2050 if nothing is done
Under the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015, the world has committed to keep a global average temperature rise to well below 2 degrees C, and better to hold the rise to no more than 1.5 degrees C, over the 21st C.
Every country, every sector and every facet of the global economy is going to have to do its part if the Paris goals are to be met and the world and its people are to be spared the risk of ever more damaging and extreme floods and droughts, rising sea levels and other super harmful impacts.
That must include the way we produce, consume and re-use core materials like concrete, steel and– as this report and others makes clear—plastics, not just for the climate but for our oceans, seas, rivers, and public health.
The report makes a series of recommendations and offers several proposals to address the climate-plastic challenge.
One potential action to begin to address this issue is to decouple plastics production from fossil fuels and encourage the industry to use low-carbon alternatives. These alternatives could include directly converting greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide into fuel or using bio-based sources such as agricultural wastes perhaps and other forms of biomass. Innovators in the field claim that using waste greenhouse gases to produce plastics is cost competitive for many applications, and furthermore they often qualify as carbon negative materials.
It’s clear that the production of the plastics used worldwide every day has a very real, and all too negative, impact on our environment and now the climate change footprint should be factored in too.
That’s why the Global Climate Action Summit is challenging states and regions, cities, organizations, businesses and individuals to Take Ambition to the Next Level in respect to climate change.
In advance, perhaps governments everywhere can adopt policies that address the challenge; manufacturers of plastics can step up their ambition and innovation and consumers can play their part to reduce the environmental footprint of this increasingly problematic material in our daily lives.
And you can be sure that the sustainability plan for the Summit has plastic in its sights—more news on this to follow soon!
Visit the summit’s challenge pages to see what changes can be made to positively impact climate change and to find out how, together, the world can use the summit and its goals to take ambition to the next level.
To learn more about how to tackle the plastic challenge read the The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics, published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Click here for more information on the United Nation’s World Environment Day.