Climate change and the pollution crisis are two sides of the same coin

Climate change is one of the most existential threats of our time. As the world comes to grips with the climate crisis, fossil fuels are beginning to slowly recede from their long history as primary sources of energy. This transition is bolstered by the increasing affordability of renewable power and governments around the globe expanding regulation of carbon pollution. While we’ve made great progress, there is undoubtedly much work still ahead.¹

As if that challenge wasn’t big enough for humanity, we are simultaneously facing a mounting pollution crisis, driven largely by our reliance on plastics which are low-cost and versatile. Plastics production has skyrocketed in recent decades – and the problem keeps growing. Plastics production is forecasted to double by 2050² — increasing to 756 million tonnes globally. But as governments begin to wake up to the dangers of plastics pollution and take action to reduce it, they’re facing a major hurdle: the fossil fuel industry is poised to invest billions in expanding plastics production – which is made from fossil fuels – to continue squeezing profit from its reserves of oil and gas.

That expansion of petrochemical projects is at the root of why the climate crisis and the plastics pollution crisis – which may at first seem like distinct problems – are in fact closely connected and why we must adopt an integrated approach if we have any real hope of resolving either. Failing to address the inherent interdependency of climate change and plastics pollution will only continue to compound the growing disastrous effects of both crises.

Big Oil searches for a new cash cow

In countries like Canada, demand for fossil fuels as primary energy sources are beginning to see a slow decline as governments move to reduce carbon pollution³ and invest in cleaner sources such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric. This transition is fueled by increasing pressure from scientists and climate activists and an increasingly aware and engaged public concerned about the impacts of climate change on their own health and communities. While cost has previously been a barrier, improvements in renewable energy and electric vehicles are rapidly making greener alternatives cheaper. However, the move toward greener energy sources has been hindered by millions in PR dollars spent by the fossil fuel industry to obstruct the truth and inject doubt about renewables into public discourse, sometimes even helped along by politicians.⁴

With fossil fuel companies face mounting regulation in the energy sector, the industry is looking to plastics production to take over demand. However, it is important to note, Big Oil is still heavily entrenched in the energy sector, continuing to search for ways to expand production, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

How fossil fuels are related to plastics

The vast majority of plastics are made from oil and gas; in fact, more than 99 per cent is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels. The process for making plastics involves exposing extracted oil and gas to enormous amounts of heat and pressure to create the building blocks of polymers (ex: natural gas or crude oil – propane – propylene-polypropylene – plastic cup). Several bio-based plastics (made by converting the sugar present in plants into plastic) have been developed, though they still only account of for less than one per cent of the market, which remains completely dominated by fossil fuel-based plastics.

Plastics originate as fossil fuels, then continue to emit greenhouse gases from cradle to grave, in addition to the related infrastructure⁵ needed for their refining, manufacturing, distribution, consumption, and disposal.

Fossil fuels and plastics are not only made from the same materials, they are made by many of the same companies. The largest plastics producing companies are often subsidiaries of oil and gas companies including the likes of Shell and ExxonMobil, or of national oil companies like Sinopec in China or SABIC in Saudi Arabia.

Plastics are projected to be the biggest source of new demand for oil over coming decades — in some projections, the only real source. Plastics production has reached a whopping 400 million metric tonnes globally each year.⁶ If trends in oil consumption and plastics production continue as expected, plastics will account for 20 per cent of total oil consumption by 2050.

Fossil fuel companies are using these projections to justify billions in new petrochemical projects. In Alberta, Northern Petrochemical Corporation has announced plans to construct a $2.5 billion ammonia and methanol production facility⁷ in the province’s Grand Prairie region. The Alberta Industrial Heartland Association projects the sector could grow by more than $30 billion by 2030.⁸ South of the border in the U.S., petrochemical companies have poured more than $200 billion into the sector⁹ since 2010  alone.

Why plastics is not the Hail Mary fossil fuel companies are looking for

While the oil and gas sector continues to load more of their eggs into the plastics basket, they might not end up with quite the windfall they’re expecting. Far from being a reliable source of growth, plastics are uniquely vulnerable to disruption and public awareness about their environmental cost continues to increase.¹⁰

The accumulation of plastics in our oceans, on our beaches, and in landfills has become a global crisis. Billions of pounds of plastics waste has formed swirling convergences that now make up about 40 per cent of the world’s ocean surfaces.¹¹ As awareness mounts and the public begins to turn against plastics, the industry is facing increasing scrutiny and regulation around the globe. Huge consumer companies like Unilever have announced plans¹² to halve the amount of virgin plastic in its packaging, with a goal of reducing more than 100,000 tonnes of waste by 2025.

Petro companies are already facing overcapacity in their fossil fuel infrastructure, meaning the industry cannot sell as much as it can produce. Despite this, Big Oil still plans to spend further billions to expand capacity – looking to plastics production to drive continued profit. Unless stopped, this will result in continued low prices and stranded assets.¹³ This term refers to assets tied to fossil fuels that are no longer able to generate an economic return. In recent years, the issue of stranded assets caused by environmental factors, such as climate change and society’s attitudes towards it, has been growing in significance.

If existing solutions are fully implemented and new regulations introduced, growth in plastics could drastically slow or stop altogether. If that happens (and we certainly hope it does), then the sector’s largest source of future oil demands might evaporate into thin air, rendering billions in petrochemical investment useless.

Big Oil is a barrier to plastics progress

As governments around the globe move to regulate plastics, they’re facing glaring opposition from oil and gas giants. These companies are relying on demand for their raw materials for plastics production, and many have billions wrapped up in their own petrochemical endeavors. But industry opposition to plastics regulation is out of step with science and public opinion.

More than 32 countries and many jurisdictions have already banned or are on the way to banning single-use plastics. In May 2021, Canada listed plastic manufactured items as toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) due to their harmful effects on the environment. The listing empowers the government to make regulations to prevent or control plastics pollution at every stage of the substance’s life cycle, from research and development to manufacturing, use, storage, transportation, and final disposal or recycling.

Three companies produce almost all the plastic that is made in Canada: NOVA Chemicals, Dow, and Imperial Oil (both Dow and Imperial Oil are huge oil and gas producers). So, it is perhaps unsurprising that these same companies lead a coalition that has filed a lawsuit against the federal government for taking action against plastics pollution. Ecojustice is fighting this industry attempt to skirt regulation; we’re representing Oceana Canada and Environmental Defence as interveners in the case. Ecojustice’s position is that it’s well within the federal government’s authority to regulate plastic at all stages of its lifecycle.

Adopting a systems-based approach to environmental disaster

When we think of plastics pollution, our minds might conjure images of plastic bags on the beach and marine life trapped in six ring drink holders. Because of this, many of our solutions are focused on addressing plastics by the time they’ve already become visible environmental pollution. While important, these measures only address a symptom of the larger problem. What is often overlooked is the opportunity to tackle the plastics pollution crisis at its root, which brings us back to the oil and gas industry.

Many of our solutions to the climate crisis revolve around reducing carbon pollution in the energy sector. But as we look to address the plastics pollution and climate change crises, it is vital we take a holistic, systems-based approach. Regulating fossil fuels in the energy sector must be accompanied by equally strong regulation in the plastics production sector in order to get at the root cause of plastics pollution and prevent Big Oil from profiting off the proliferation of the plastics crisis. In the same vein, a cohesive approach is needed to stop plastics production from undermining gains being made in reducing carbon pollution.

The plastic pollution crisis and climate change are two sides of the same polluting coin – at the root of both are fossil fuel interests. The way out of both crises is to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels – that means applying the brakes on the expansion of the petrochemical industry and holding producers accountable for the entire life cycle of the products they produce.

From bioplastics to improving circularity and recycling, there are plenty of opportunities to address the plastics pollution crisis. Stay tuned to our blog for an upcoming post where we’ll tackle the question: what does a future less dependent on cheap, single-use plastics look like?

¹Countries Must Transition Away From Fossil Fuels. But How Can We Do That Fairly for All? ²Plastic pollution is a huge problem—and it’s not too late to fix it ³Carbon pollution pricing systems across Canada Trump claims wind energy “kills all the birds.” Cats and windows are actually much more to blame. How plastics contribute to climate change Drowning in Plastics – Marine Litter and Plastic Waste Vital Graphics $2.5B carbon-neutral petrochemical plant slated for northwestern Alberta Alberta lands $2.5B petrochemical project Plastic production is a fossil fuel problem ¹⁰Big Oil’s hopes are pinned on plastics. It won’t end well. ¹¹Plastic pollution in oceans and on land ¹²Rethinking plastic packaging ¹³Carbon Tracker, stranded assets