Negotiators are convening this week in Nairobi for the latest round of talks aimed at creating a new scientific panel to advise the world’s governments on how to tackle chemical waste. But as the talks get underway, concerns have been voiced about potential conflicts of interest that could undermine the panel. The warning comes as efforts to agree a global treaty on plastic pollution appear to have been delayed by vested interests.

The UN wants its new panel on chemical waste and pollution prevention to follow a similar template to the IPCC – the body that provides the world’s most authoritative reports on climate change. It hopes that the body will be ready to launch by the end of 2024, but negotiators still have a lot of work ahead of them on agreeing how the panel will operate.

According to former IPCC chair Bob Watson, who is coordinating the negotiations for the chemical waste panel, the goal for this week’s meeting in Nairobi ‘is to make significant progress in agreeing text on key issues needed to establish [the panel], including, scope, functions, principles, institutional arrangements, processes to establish the work programme, stakeholder engagement and conflict of interests’. He also says that participants also need to ‘identify and agree on what needs to be done’ to ensure the meeting next June in Switzerland is a success.

Conflicts of interest warning

Last month, dozens of scientists issued a warning in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest resulting from chemical industry involvement on the panel. The group notes that some companies have vested interests in protecting revenue-generating chemicals despite evidence of their detrimental impacts on public health and the environment. They point to numerous historical examples where industry players – including the tobacco, fossil fuel, nuclear power, plastics, pesticides and pharmaceutical industries, as well as PFAS manufacturers – have attempted to downplay scientific evidence of their products’ harms to block policies that would threaten their financial interests.

The researchers suggest that to address this the panel’s work should be independently audited. They argue that experts with a conflict of interest could contribute as observers, but ‘should not be allowed to participate’ in the panel’s core work or its decision-making processes.

‘Letting polluters have a say in pollution protections is the epitome of the fox guarding the henhouse,’ said Andreas Schäffer, an expert on environmental biology and chemodynamics from RWTH Aachen University in Germany, who helped coordinate the scientists’ warning letter. ‘Just like the tobacco industry was restricted from [the World Health Organization’s] work on smoking, the UN shouldn’t let the chemical industry’s hired guns dilute global guidelines for chemical and waste management.’

One argument for the involvement of industry in the panel’s work is that many companies hold important data that is needed to fully understand the risks posed by particular chemicals. However, the researchers question how useful or reliable this data will be, and suggest that industry could still share this data as observers rather than direct participants in the panel.

Camilla Alexander-White, an expert on chemicals policy at the Royal Society of Chemistry, says that for the panel’s work to succeed, getting industry buy-in will be essential. ‘To tackle a problem as enormous as global chemical pollution, the science–policy panel will need to draw on expertise, data and goodwill from the widest possible range of sources – including from scientists in all sectors acting as independent experts,’ she notes.

However, Alexander-White agrees that having clear rules around conflicts of interest are a must. ‘Everyone has interests to declare, and scientific progress is made by reaching consensus, but not always unanimity,’ she says. ‘The best way to manage potential conflicts of interest is through rigorous and transparent reporting processes, as well as adhering to existing codes of conduct for professional scientists.’

‘The science–policy panel will provide vital scientific inputs to a wider political process and a united scientific approach that assesses all the data and evidence, without fear or favour, will lead to better science-informed policy and, ultimately, positive results for society and the environment,’ she adds.

Setback for plastics treaty

Related work to negotiate a legally binding treaty to tackle plastic pollution is facing delays as a result of vested interests. The final version of the treaty is due to be signed by the end of 2024. However, the latest intergovernmental negotiating committee meeting, which was held in Nairobi in November, failed to agree on the intersessional work to be carried out before the next meeting in April.

This was a ‘big setback’ according to Melanie Bergmann, an expert on environmental microplastic pollution from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Germany, who attended the Nairobi meeting as part of the Scientists Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty. She notes that the intersessional work could have allowed negotiators to begin scrutinising which of the thousands of primary polymers and chemicals found in plastics should be targeted by the treaty. Without a mandate to do this, the whole process is likely to be delayed.

Many observers of the treaty negotiations have noted that several countries that produce the raw materials for plastics have attempted to push the conversation towards issues of waste management and recycling, rather than curbing plastic production. In particular, a group led by Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia has been accused of trying to derail the process in bad faith by arguing that binding cuts to plastic production should not be in the treaty’s scope.

‘It’s actually quite similar to [this year’s] Cop28, where the same countries tried to focus on emitted CO2 and not curbing states’ CO2 emissions,’ says Bergmann. ‘Of course, those countries that have a strong fossil fuel industry want to keep extracting fossil fuels – it’s their business model and plastic is seen as a lifeboat to the industry.’

While any delay in the negotiations is frustrating, Bergmann believes that it could also bring some positives if it ultimately leads to a stronger treaty. She hopes that ahead of the next committee meeting other states will develop a united strategy to deal with the ‘bloc of countries that don’t seem to want an effective plastics treaty’.

‘There were a lot of very diluted options on the table for intersessional work – so maybe that would not actually have been beneficial,’ she says. ‘So in a way, it might be better to have a bit more time and more ambitious texts – because once we have a text, it will be very difficult to make changes later on.’