Reducing Global Mercury 21st Century Style

This month will distinguish itself as a period of heavy international focus for NRDC's Health program. In my previous blog, I described my travel for our China project, which addresses the textile sector, one of the country's most polluting industries. At the same time, we also traveled to the United Nations meeting in Nairobi, Kenya and successfully promoted the need for a globally binding treaty to reduce the use and release of mercury. That work to negotiate a treaty will now begin in earnest.

I've been thinking a lot about the differences in these two initiatives, the textile work versus the mercury work. 

The textile project is completely 21st century; I call it my Tom Friedman project.  We work with our partners around the world seamlessly by email and skype at all hours, joking about who is in pajamas drinking coffee and who has got their feet up in the living room drinking a beer.  We email PowerPoint presentations and web links during conference calls to walk through details.

 Cultural differences abound, of course, but we interact routinely just as individuals.  By the time we get to meetings, we know each other pretty well, and differences in our backgrounds are not major hurdles. In meetings we had in Hong Kong, China and Guangdong earlier this month, I marveled at the international nature of the participants -- representatives from the United States, England, South Africa, India and China of course, many representing corporate interests that operate from an even wider swath of countries, with experiences from Central American, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

Just this week I spoke with a Greek working for a U.K. firm who contacted my office because he'd missed our meeting in Hong Kong, China.  It is always a kick to see how much a group like this can actually have in common, some of it based on our technical training and knowledge of the industry I suppose, but some of it based on music or travel or just the overlap in experience in our day jobs. It definitely leads to productive meeting flow and facilitates decision making across the group. We're making great progress.

Flash to the negotiation in Nairobi where the United Nations had dutifully sent me a large packet of background materials (see above) in a brown paper wrapper by snail mail all the way from Africa!  Who even looks at their mail to see what's in there every day at the office anymore?  Stuff that arrives via postal service can sit for days without my noticing it.  And then, reading all that in hard copy?  No key word searches to fast track the review?  Are you kidding??

 Of course, information dissemination is just the tip of the iceberg.  The meeting itself to discuss the need for a treaty, called the UNEP Governing Council meeting, is extremely formal and occurs only every two years.  Any meetings between Governing Council sessions - and they are very few and far between - are not licensed to be decision-making meetings.

Since countries are meeting only every two years, there tends to be tremendous turnover in representatives. Most people don't know each other from previous engagements, and there is a total dearth of inside jokes in this group, believe me. On top of this, many of the representatives sent to the meeting do not necessarily have any expertise in mercury, and they are always very wary of international implications of any wrong move.

Under this UNEP structure, we had exactly five days in a very formal setting with a group of mostly strangers to deliberate the value of a legally binding treaty to reduce mercury pollution across the world.  If we failed to do so in those five working days, we would have all had to wait another two years to deliberate with another group of mostly strangers some more. 

 This is "global governance" in the 21st century! Its pace makes the U.S. Congress look positively functional! And multi-national corporations like Wal-Mart look like science fiction, managing to get tens of thousands of identical white blouses manufactured across the world all at once in a patchwork of crazy country computer connections.

So, hey, United Nations: Can we not do any better?  The non-governmental organizations working on mercury have been interacting routinely by email and Skype for more than four years now, and it has worked out really well, despite time and cultural differences. 

So how about modernizing the scene for the upcoming mercury treaty negotiation?  What about if the government representatives interact starting now over email, before they lose track of each other?  Why not discuss how to run the negotiations over webinars rather than waiting until a meeting in the fall in Stockholm?  What about if you create wiki's and let the various players organize the information they think people need to move forward?  The wiki group might naturally become a team of experts from around the world, supplementing or even replacing less expert representatives of their country's interests. 

UNEP has four years to complete the mercury negotiation; it must be done by 2013.    But given the 21st century, don't you think we could find a faster and more efficient path forward?  Four years is almost 1500 days, and if we can do some work without actually being physically together, we should be able to do this in much less time. Flying to meetings in Nairobi or Stockholm or Geneva is inconvenient, environmentally unfriendly and, face it, expensive, and in 2009, most of us are used to doing a lot of work without being face-to-face for everything anyway.