Plastic production risks climate catastrophe

Production of single-use, disposable plastics should end immediately or risk undermining efforts to prevent climate catastrophe, according to a new report.

It warns that in 2019 alone, plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere across its lifecycle, equal to the pollution from 189 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.

Published by the Centre for International Environmental Law based in the US, the report gathers research on the greenhouse gas emissions of plastic at each stage of its lifecycle—from its origins in fossil fuels through refining and manufacture to the emissions generated after its disposal to create what the authors describe as “the most comprehensive review to date of the climate impacts of plastic”.

The report says that with the ongoing, rapid expansion of the plastic and petrochemical industries, the climate impacts of plastic are poised to accelerate dramatically in the coming decade, threatening the ability of the global community to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C degrees as set out under the Paris agreement.

It also highlights how a small but growing body of research suggests plastic discarded in the environment may be disrupting the ocean’s natural ability to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide, noting that oceans have absorbed as much as 40% of all human-produced carbon dioxide since the beginning of the industrial era.

As well as halting the production of single-use disposable plastics the authors recommend stopping development of new oil, gas, and petrochemical infrastructure; fostering the transition to zero-waste communities; implementing extended producer responsibility as a critical component of circular economies; and adopting and enforcing ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including plastic production.

“This report demonstrates that plastic, like the rest of the fossil economy, is putting the climate at risk,” said Carroll Muffett, president at the Centre for International Environmental Law. “Because the drivers of the climate crisis and the plastic crisis are closely linked, so too are their solutions: humanity must end its reliance on fossil fuels and on fossil plastics that the planet can no longer afford.”

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