Plastic Clean Up and Brand Audit Activity in Africa.
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Fairey’s "Biden: Which Future" Art Banner in Washington DC. © Tim Aubry / Greenpeace
Greenpeace US activists deploy a banner with a new art collaboration by graphic artist Shepard Fairey and Greenpeace USA pushing President Joe Biden to end the era of fossil fuel racism and deliver on the promise of a Green New Deal. The new piece Fairey designed for Greenpeace and the climate movement depicts two possible futures — one in which Joe Biden delivers on his promises to prioritize climate and environmental justice, and one in which fossil fuel corporations escape accountability for their decades of pollution and deceit. © Tim Aubry / Greenpeace

Earlier this week, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) acknowledged Kenya’s “stewardship” in the continental fight against plastic pollution; but, if the past fews months are anything to go by, its notoriously stringent anti-plastic laws may not have as firm a grip when it comes to corporate interference in domestic policy. 

Only a few months have passed since the Kenyan government’s free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations with the United States (US) came under international scrutiny. In August, the Greenpeace investigative journalism unit Unearthed discovered that the American Chemistry Council (ACC) lobbied the US State Representative to demand an immediate suspension of its single-use plastic bans. Kenya’s ban on the use, manufacture and importation of single-use plastic carrier bags came into effect in 2017; it has since banned all single-use plastic from its national parks.  The ACC wanted to reverse Kenya’s progress and make it a gateway to Africa for plastic trade – then sell us recycling as a “false solution” to the environmental catastrophe it would later cause. 

The debacle has barely blown over and yet, in the lead up to the UN summit being held in Nairobi, UNEP has boldly named Kenya as an emerging leader in the fight against plastic pollution and among the first countries in Africa to sign the Clean Seas initiative

While it is encouraging that Kenya’s environmental stewardship has been acknowledged worldwide, since both officials and ordinary citizens have fought against the menace that single-use plastic has become in Africa, the threats to the country’s efforts remain real. Contraband plastic is already flooding the nation and “plastic islands” have tainted the landscape of its beloved World Heritage site, Lamu.   

Kenya has invested heavily in both policy regulations and law enforcement to win the fight against plastic pollution. National Environment Management Authority of Kenya recently launched a new wave of surveillance to heighten checks on the outlawed plastic bags across the country – a response to the aforementioned wave of contraband plastic. There has never been a more important time for its government to be firm and to stay true to its efforts against the plastic pollution crisis, which is exacerbating climate emergencies.

A climate striker protesting against plastic waste to mark Global Climate Change Day at Uhuru Park in Nairobi last year when the news of the ACC’s proposal first broke internationally.

The onus however, is on both countries, not just Kenya. Each has a responsibility to make trade right for the people and the planet, and not just free for corporations. The announcement that the negotiations about the free trade agreement are to continue shows that the deal is not completely off the table as it should be. 

The Biden administration needs to relook at the proposed FTA with Kenya by revisiting the rationale of engaging. The proposed FTA with Kenya is asymmetrical in nature and has the potential of undermining regional integration in East Africa due to the fact that Kenya is in a customs territory with the rest of the EAC partner states. Biden’s government should pay attention to the integration journey that the African countries have entered into under the spectrum of the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA). 

Both parties must assess the implications of this FTA as it relates to the environment and ensure that the existing environmental laws that are in force are adhered to. Kenya has a strong legislation that bans the importation of single use plastics, so the FTA must be cognisant to this progress that is also replicated in 34 other African countries

It is encouraging to note that the Biden administration has indicated that addressing climate change sits high on their diplomatic agenda with Kenya. The current climate crisis remains one of the biggest threats to all of us. As the relationship between the plastic and petrochemical industries has become clear as day, so has plastic’s contribution to climate change. 

As a product of fossil fuels, plastic production – and its incineration – releases harmful toxins into the environment which contribute to rising temperatures, globally.  If the new US government is true to its commitment to tackle the climate crisis, then rejecting the ACC’s proposal is a nonnegotiable. In fact, any trade and investment agreement between the two countries must exclude any imports of plastic waste into East Africa.

The US’s focus on climate change could benefit from deepening cooperation with other countries around the world to come up with sustainable solutions that prioritise people and host communities. Its return to multilateralism is a great sign of strengthening solidarity with the rest of the world on areas of trade, environment and climate change given the fact that they have formally rejoined  the Paris Agreement. 

The world collectively faces a great challenge and we have no choice but to rally together against climate change, and respecting the measures that countries already have in place is a good start. Right now, there are no trade agendas or diplomatic ties that are more important than adhering to environmental standards and stopping the climate crisis.  

This Op-Ed was written by Greenpeace Africa Plastic Project Lead Angelo Louw & Greenpeace Africa Senior Political Advisor Fredrick Njehu. It was originally published in The Standard newspaper on 9 March 2021. Click here to see original article.