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Equitable Transition towards a Green Economy: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers’ Rights in South Asia

DAY 3 | 22 March
15:15-16:30 NST (GMT+5:45)

Image by Lacey Williams


South Asia is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change and pollution. According to the World Bank, more than half of all South Asians – or 750 million people - were impacted by one or more climate-related disasters in the last 20 years. Pollution has been identified as one of the three planetary crises that threaten human health and the environment. It is human-induced, and in the case of plastics, directly linked to climate change and biodiversity loss. The rapidly increasing volume of plastic pollution and plastic-related greenhouse gas emissions poses a grave threat to human health, human rights, and the environment.


Our planet is polluted by plastics containing chemicals that are seriously harmful to people and the environment. Plastic production has risen exponentially in the last decades and now amounts to some 400 million tons per year– a figure set to double by 2040. According to CIEL's report on “Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Cost of a Plastic Planet”, if plastic production and use grow as planned, by 2030, these emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—equivalent to the emissions released by more than 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants. By 2050, the cumulation of these greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could reach over 56 gigatons—10–13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget.


Efforts are being made to address South Asia's climate change and pollution crisis. All South Asian countries have ratified the Paris Agreement, committing to Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that specify their plans to reduce national GHG emissions and transition toward a green economy. In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban plastic bags, partly due to the fact that the proliferation of thin plastic bags had choked the country’s drainage system during the frequent devastating floods.


In March 2022, Heads of State, Ministers of environment and other representatives from UN Member States at the resumed fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) endorsed a landmark resolution to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding instrument with the ambition to complete negotiations by the end of 2024. The resolution recognizes the significant contribution made by workers in informal and cooperative settings to the collecting, sorting, and recycling of plastics in many countries. Likewise, in June 2022, the International Labour Conference adopted a resolution on the right to a safe and healthy working environment, supporting a just transition to a low-carbon world. The resolution notes that a safe and healthy working environment requires the active participation of governments, employers and workers through a system of defined rights, responsibilities and duties, as well as through social dialogue and cooperation.


The achievement of net-zero targets will require unprecedented economic, industrial, production, consumption, and technological transformation in all countries. However, approaches to transitioning ‘out’ of emissions-intensive production like plastic production could adversely impact the rights and livelihoods of workers at heightened risk of occupational exposure, including people informally collecting and recovering waste in middle and low-income countries.  A human rights perspective that extends understanding of just transition’s implications into value chains and business relationships can achieve better human rights and development outcomes.

Session Description

Most plastics originate as fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases at each stage of the plastic lifecycle, namely: 1) fossil fuel extraction and transportation, 2) plastic feedstocks refining and manufacture of precursors, materials and products3) recovery and disposal, and 4) its ongoing impact in oceans, waterways, and landscape. The negotiations of the new instrument on plastics is a key opportunity for the international community to adopt a strong binding framework that addresses the full life cycle of plastics and the impact of just transition on workers, ensuring inclusive, evidence-based and accountable environmental action.


During this session, panellists from diverse backgrounds and sectors will come together to present their views and reflect on how the new instrument can advance efforts to achieve a just transition towards a sustainable economy and ensure that its implementation does not translate into further negative impacts on people disproportionately impacted by plastic pollution.

Session Objectives

The key objectives of this session are to:

  • Demonstrate how the fulfilment of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment for all requires effective measures to realize change with respect to the production, use and disposal of plastics, to address and remediate the impacts of plastics on our physical environment, and to reimagine humanity’s relationship with nature including through education with respect for nature at its core.

  • Discuss how the application of a rights-based approach to the whole life cycle of plastics necessary to prevent adverse impacts from the transition out of emissions-intensive production on workers’ rights.

  • Discuss the role of Businesses in realizing the right to a healthy environment, and workers’ rights, particularly in the context of just transition.

  • Discuss the challenges and opportunities of workers in South Asia in relation to the international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution.


Panellists will reflect on the following questions:

  • What do concepts such as and mean to each of the sectors represented in the panel?

  • What are the impacts of plastic pollution on health, human rights, workers’ rights and the environment?

  • What is needed to combat plastic pollution and what are the implications for workers and communities in South Asia?

  • How can the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) be used to accelerate efforts to reduce plastic pollution in the South Asian subregion?

  • What is the latest progress of the negotiation process on the international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution? What implications will this have for workers and communities in South Asia and what potential safeguards can be identified for their rights in a cap production and phase-out scenario?

  • In what ways is a human rights-based approach necessary to ensure a just transition to a new economy?


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