by Leila Monroe
In international negotiations, there is a stark contrast between the “inside game,” characterized by quiet, huddled, intense negotiations, and the “outside game,” where the vocal masses campaign for their cause, rallying against the failings of the status quo. At times, it seems that these two versions of global action are irreparably disconnected, to the detriment of both. But during and since the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also called Rio+20 or the Earth Summit, this author has witnessed examples of multiple stakeholders’ cross-interest collaboration around the issue of marine pollution—especially plastic waste—that provide inspiration for bold and innovative leaders in government, civil society, and business.
In June 2012, thousands of global leaders, government personnel, businesses, and activists of all kinds converged on Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit. Critics such as Mary Robinson, President of Ireland from 1990-1997 and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997-2002, described the Earth Summit as a failure, largely because of the gap between the incremental progress of the formal negotiations and the systemic changes demanded through fervent marches, civic activism, and campaigns of youth groups, climate change activists, indigenous people, and the millions of concerned citizens from around the world.
Many important issues were up for discussion at Rio+20. While progress on some key issues was dismal, efforts to control marine plastic pollution made positive strides. Plastic waste is pervasive in all the world’s oceans, presenting a range of negative economic, societal, and environmental impacts. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlighted plastic debris in the ocean as an emerging environmental threat in the 2011 Year Book, noting the growing scientific concern about the “potential impact of releases of persistent bio-accumulating and toxic compounds (PBTs) from plastic debris.”
This problem is systemic and symptomatic of excessive global production and consumption, and economic or regulatory regimes that do not account for significant externalities. A number of international conventions address this issue, including the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment form Land-Based Activities (GPA) andInternational Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). Although these conventions have been in place for decades, scientific studies indicate that the problem of marine plastic pollution is only getting worse.
At Rio+20, the work of committed government personnel was paired with the engagement and activism of stakeholders, and the results have been encouraging thus far. Through the “inside game,” the negotiations at Rio+20 resulted in “The Future We Want – Outcome Document,” in which global leaders committed to using the GPA to address the problem of plastic pollution. Plastics were called out as being the most persistent and pervasive type of marine debris, the material posing significant threats to marine life through ingestion and entanglement, as well as significant economic costs to cash strapped governments that struggle to pay for expensive waste management and cleanup measures. Naming the problem was a significant step forward that was achieved through the advocacy of civil society groups, working with scientists and receptive government personnel.
While the negotiated agreement is an important milestone because it identifies a global problem, it does not guarantee multilateral or unilateral action. The real challenge is leveraging the agreement to support effective cross-sectoral action. A diverse array of players has begun to convene to identify opportunities for meaningful action, with or without federal or large-scale coordinated international instrumentation. This convening may then spur federal and high-level coordinated action.
One example of the cross-sectoral engagements initiated at Rio+20 was the creation of the UNEP Marine Litter Partnership. This loosely formulated partnership primarily acts as a coordinating forum for engaging a range of stakeholders and facilitating information exchange with the purpose of advancing best practices, policy, and legal controls to reduce the amount and impacts of land- and sea-based litter and solid waste on the marine environment. Each stakeholder group offers valuable contributions. For example, UNEP’s leadership helps to diffuse tension between government, business, and civil stakeholders with competing views; NGOs can offer guidance and advocate for more aggressive action; and businesses provide context about operational realities implicated in policy changes.
Effective cross-sectoral convening is also happening at events hosted or co-hosted by the private sector and civil society. These meetings provide a more relaxed atmosphere for the exchange of ideas and experiences between different levels of government and various groups. For example, at an event called the Plasticity Forum, representatives from business and from the San Francisco Department of the Environment, renown for achieving an eighty percent landfill diversion rate,exchanged best practices with federal government personnel from Zambia. As another example, in December 2012, the Natural Resources Defense Council joined UNEP in hosting an in-depth examination of upstream measures to stop plastic waste from reaching the aquatic environment.
These initiatives represent just a few of the ways in which stakeholders at all levels can work together to advance effective, efficient environmental conservation. With creativity and commitment, governments, the private sector, and civil society can enhance environmental protection and conservation for the benefit of us all.
About the Author
Leila Monroe is a staff attorney in the Oceans Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). She works at the state, national and international levels on a range of issues including: ocean governance, oversight of ocean renewable energy and other marine industrial activities, marine protected areas, shark conservation and marine plastic pollution.