The Covid-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to reconfigure trade policy in favour of sustainable materials, UN trade officials are arguing, as fears emerge over the extent of plastic waste caused by the outbreak.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) says containment and treatment measures taken around the world have resulted in a surge in production of non-recyclable medical goods and protective equipment.

Global sales of disposable face masks are expected to total US$166bn this year, up from US$0.8bn in 2019, it says. At the same time, lockdown measures have resulted in an increase in home deliveries of goods and – as a result – more plastic packaging.

“Our streets, beaches and ocean have been hit by a tidal wave of Covid-19 waste including plastic face masks, gloves, hand sanitiser bottles and food packaging,” UNCTAD says.

“Historical data tell us that about 75% of coronavirus plastic will likely become waste clogging our landfills and floating in our seas.

“And the costs are staggering. The negative spillover effects of plastic waste on fisheries, tourism and maritime transport, for example, add up to an estimated US$40bn each year, according to the UN Environment Programme.”

Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD’s director of international trade, is urging governments around the world to respond by regulating the production and use of plastics, while identifying plastic substitutes that are not manufactured from fossil fuels.

“Plastic production and consumption are a global system that has lots of trade dimensions,” she says. “But the important role that global trade policies could play in the fight against plastic pollution has not garnered the attention it deserves.”

There have been significant efforts to tackle plastic waste around the world. According to data reported to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the volume of technical regulations, subsidies, licences and bans related to plastic has increased annually by 28% over the past decade.

But for Coke-Hamilton, those efforts have “mostly been uncoordinated”, limiting their effectiveness.

UNCTAD lists several non-toxic, biodegradable or recyclable products that could replace plastics, including ceramics, natural fibres, paper and natural rubber.

Prioritising such materials could boost exports from developing nations, it adds. For example, developing countries currently supply 94% of the world’s natural rubber, with Thailand, Indonesia and Côte d’Ivoire the largest exporters.

“Since many plastics substitutes are also labour intensive, changes in production and consumption patterns could create new jobs,” Coke-Hamilton adds.

The calls follow worrying UNCTAD research that suggests this year’s record-breaking drop in carbon dioxide emissions – caused largely by a drop in air and road travel due to national containment measures – is still not enough to meet sustainability targets set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Carbon emissions for the first quarter of 2020 are believed to be 5% lower than the equivalent period last year. The overall decline for the year is forecast at 8%, UNCTAD adds, returning emissions to the levels they were a decade ago.

“Although record-breaking, the forecast reduction of CO2 emissions caused by the Covid-19 outbreak will not be enough to achieve even the weakest of the targets set out by the Paris climate agreement,” it says.

“Global emissions would need to be cut by almost 8% every year for the next 10 years to keep us within reach.”

Achieving that would require concerted action from the public and private sector. The Grantham Institute on climate change, part of the London School of Economics, says banks have a critical role to play.

“Finance will be crucial to making the just transition a reality, from institutional investors, banks and building societies as well as public finance,” it says in a July policy paper.

“Some banks are starting to align their business models with net-zero. Efforts like these now need to be scaled up in ways that help to make the economy more resilient, more inclusive and more regionally balanced by extending their strategies to incorporate the just transition.”

There are also signs of change within the fossil fuels industry. Ben van Beurden, chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell, said in an interview with IHS Markit this month that by 2050 all products it sells should result in zero carbon emissions.

That means “zero emissions in our operations, zero emission in the manufacture of the product, zero emissions associated with the energy product as such, and zero emissions on a net basis from its use”, he says.

“It is indeed a wide-ranging ambition, but it’s the only way that a company like us can stand up and say we are Paris compliant.”

However, those ambitions are currently a long way from reality. Research published by Transition Pathway Initiative in May said claims that oil companies are on course to reach net zero are “overstated”.