Petrochemical plant emitting pollution

Unabated plastic production poses serious climate change hazard, finds study

Image credit: Petrochemical plant. Photograph: Anatolii Savitskii |

The continued expansion of plastic production could lead to global warming that far outstrips the current 1.5°C limit agreed on by nations in 2015, leading to the worst impacts of climate change, according to research published today.

The research from NGO Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) and Eunomia Research & Consulting found that a business-as-usual approach to plastic production - with other human activities increasing at this level - would result in a trajectory of warming towards 3.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

The IPCC’s 2021 Sixth Assessment Report estimated that there is a 67 per cent chance of global warming staying within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels if cumulative global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions stay below 400GtCO2e.

But if the significant growth in all global plastic production witnessed historically continues at an annual growth rate of 4%, it will reach 1.6Gt annually by 2050. With no change from current practices, the report estimates that total annual GHG emissions in 2050 will reach 7Gt CO2e, with cumulative emissions reaching 129Gt CO2e. This is 32 per cent of the IPCC’s entire budget for limiting warming to 1.5°C.

Even with aggressive decarbonisation, projections in the study suggest that a trajectory of 2.2°C is possible.

The plastics industry currently does not have a roadmap to net zero.

A recent report from ZWE found that a move to chemical recycling, which petrochemical companies can reduce the impact of plastic production, was not compatible with a limiting global warming to 1.5°C

An E&T investigation this month asked whether chemical recycling, which is being promoted in the US in particular, can be considered recycling.

The latest ZWE report which also examined the iron, steel and concrete industries, found that failure to act soon could mean exhausting the remaining carbon budget, the maximum amount of CO2 that can be released and still limit global warming to 1.5°C, by as early as 2028.
The report says that the current continued material production is inherently unsustainable and the rate of increase in material consumption needs not only to be reduced but, in all sectors, reversed.

Eunomia’s Simon Hann, lead author of the research, said: “Slowly decarbonising for the next 30 years is evidently not enough and there is a clear need to change the way we think about material production and consumption. Bold and decisive near-term action from policy makers and industry leaders is therefore essential to make this happen.”

Separately, marine biologists Justine Ammendolia, and Tony Walker, writing in the science journal Nature this week, claimed that the US was threatening to undermine the United Nations Environment Assembly’s move to adopt a legally binding global agreement to curb plastic pollution by 2024.

They said the US seeks instead to form a coalition of countries to drive treaty negotiations based on voluntary commitments. This, the scientists argued, could bypass strict global measures such as limiting or banning plastic production, which they point out have been strongly opposed by the powerful petrochemical and plastics industry.

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