Lately, Thea Riofrancos noted in Viewpoint Magazine this week, “climate scientists are beginning to sound like radicals” — and not without reason. An October 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advises policymakers that limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”; a November 2018 federal assessment warns that climate change “is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century; and a UN report released last week reveals more that than 1 million plant and animal species are currently on the verge of extinction.
Can’t get worse than that, right? Wrong. A new report by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) estimates, for the first time, plastic’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions — and the results are alarming. In 2019, plastic production and incineration will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere — the equivalent of pollution from 189 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants. If production and use increase as planned, these emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year by 2030 (equal to more than 295 500-megawatt coal-fired plants) and over 56 gigatons by 2050 — 10-13% of our entire remaining carbon budget (the amount of carbon dioxide emissions we can sustain while still having a chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius).
The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a trade association representing U.S. chemical companies, pushed back against the findings.
“Unfortunately, the CIEL report focuses largely on the anticipated growth of plastic production but fails to note that production is growing in response to increasing global demand for lightweight automotive parts, building insulation, and product packaging — all of which will play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping people live more sustainably around the world,” said Steve Russell, vice president of ACC’s Plastics Division, in a statement.
Nevertheless, the report recommends several key actions:
- Ending the production and use of single-use, disposable plastics
- Halting development of oil, gas and petrochemical infrastructure
- Fostering the transition to “zero waste”
- Establishing extended producer responsibility as an integral part of circular economies
- Adopting and enforcing ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors — including the plastics industry
“It has long been clear that plastic threatens the global environment and puts human health at risk,” said CIEL President Carroll Muffett in a statement. “This report demonstrates that plastic, like the rest of the fossil economy, is putting the climate at risk as well. 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.”