By Miriam Diamond & Zhanyun Wang, IPCP Board Members
The federal government recently (re)announced its intention to ban several single use plastics as part of the government’s commitment of reducing plastic waste to zero by 2030.
A day earlier, Alberta signalled its intention to increase the province’s capacity for recycling plastic, in line with the government’s commitment to bolster the plastic industry.
Again, the federal and Alberta governments appear to be at odds with each other. And we are all the losers as our climate is warming at twice the global rate, which fundamentally undermines our prosperity and social stability, and plastic pollution extends from coast-to-coast-to-coast and all place in between.
We argue that curbing climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions and plastic pollution are interconnected and both must be tackled by reducing oil and plastic production. But the obstacle against taking such action is the problem of “lock-in.”
“Lock-in” and more specifically “carbon lock-in” perpetuates fossil fuel production and use through infrastructure support, even when cost-effective alternatives exist and external costs to society mount.
The infrastructure is both “hard” — extraction, refineries and pipelines — and “soft” — institutional investments to build up and maintain the infrastructure. Gregory Unruh of George Mason University, who coined the term “lock-in,” has called this a “techno-institutional complex” that maintains the market for fossil fuels and causes chronic failures of policies aimed to shift from fossil fuel use.
Global “carbon lock-in” has resulted in the continued growth in fossil fuel production, although global supply exceeded demand and halved oil prices in 2014. Unfazed by weakened global demand or the external costs of climate change caused by fossil fuels, the global oil and gas industry not only continues production, but also to invest in what many believe will be “stranded assets.”
For example, proponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline, notably the Alberta government with its commitment of $1.5 billion investment and $6-billion in a loan guarantee, continue to build this pipeline to bring high-cost Alberta oilsands’ crude to Gulf Coast refineries.
Given an oversupply and low prices, fossil fuel producers are seeking profitable alternatives to using their product as a fuel. They are among those who have invested more than $200 billion in the past decade into new facilities for producing feedstocks for plastics and other petrochemicals in the U.S.
Companies such as Exxon Mobile and Shell are hoping for a 40 per cent increase in plastic production. Plastics among the largest industries in the province with total revenues of $6.3 billion in 2015. Plastic product is converting “oil lock-in” into “plastic lock-in.”
However, now even the prices for many plastics have declined. Concerns about “plastic lock-in” and a glut of cheap plastic revolve around ballooning plastic waste, of which just the U.S. alone exported more than 1 million tonnes to 96 countries in 2019 due to its inability to deal with this massive problem. Will Alberta welcome this plastic waste for recycling, only to convert it back into plastic?
Rather than just seeking to ban single use plastics, we need to break the bonds of the “lock-in” effect. First, we need to have integrated policies addressing fossil fuel (and plastic) supply and demand.
Currently, governments underwrite the continued supply by subsidizing the fossil fuel industry while reducing some demand for fuels through, for example, taking aim by banning some single use plastics. This bans will stem some plastic waste, but it is unlikely to make meaningful change unless the issues of supply and demand are intertwined.
Second, we need to remove distortions in the marketplace that allow continued profitability of the fossil fuel and plastics industry and instead, we need to incentivize low-carbon technologies. We see increasing signs of divestment from fossil fuel production in recognition that it’s a bad investment. For example, Ireland passed legislation to compel the national investment fund to divest from coal, oil, gas and peat “as soon as is practical.” At the same time, Ireland is investing in alternative energy projects.
It is more than time to squarely and effectively address the intertwined and immediate issues of climate change arising from emissions of fossil fuels and the growing mountains of plastic pollution. What’s at stake is a stable and clean environment upon which all our health and prosperity lies.