I didn’t get much sleep last week, but that was ok because I was in Geneva working with hundreds of others on the world’s first treaty to address mercury pollution. Negotiations on treaty text continued around the clock, with everyone at the meeting cognizant of the need to finish by Friday, or fail. As it was, negotiations on the financial arrangements to support the treaty dragged on until late Friday night, but by 7:00 AM Saturday morning the final treaty text was approved, and the Swiss delegation graciously served champagne and cake to an extremely tired but happy group of delegates and observers.
It wasn’t easy. Some countries demanded key concessions in crucial areas to reach agreement. The result is a treaty strong in some areas but weak in others. For example, the provisions on product phase-outs are relatively strong, while the air emission control requirements for existing facilities are delayed far too long. Still, the fact that there is a global mercury treaty at all is a significant accomplishment given the gridlock on other issues. Overall, the agreement is a good starting point for building international coordination and cooperation, and there’s room to make improvements down the line. The global mercury pollution problem is not completely solved by this treaty, but the building blocks are there for reaching that objective sometime in the future.
On a personal note, the finalization of this treaty is the culmination of eight years of work. During this time, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with NGOs from all over the globe. I also have an appreciation for the huge challenges facing global cooperation within the UN process, and respect for the professionalism in which many of the delegates conducted themselves under exhausting and tense conditions.
A complete text of the agreed upon treaty is not available yet. But here is a brief summary of some of the key provisions:
- New mercury mines are prohibited as of the date the Convention enters into force, and existing mines must be phased out within 15 years;
- Mercury from decommissioning chlor-alkali plants (factories using mercury to make chlorine and caustic soda, required to be phased out by 2025), cannot be sold or reused except within the chlor-alkali sector itself;
- The trading of mercury requires the written consent of the importing country;
- Specified mercury-added products are subject to a 2020 phase out date. These products are batteries (except silver oxide and zinc air button cells), the vast majority of switches and relays, skin lightening soaps and creams, pesticides, biocides (but not vaccines), topical antiseptics, barometers, hygrometers, manometers, thermometers, and blood pressure cuffs. Exceptions are provided for calibration and scientific research, and certain replacement applications;
- The phase out dates for products and the chlor-alkali sector may be extended if a country requests an exemption. An initial five year extension will be easy to get; the second and last possible five year extension is subject to review and approval by all Parties to the Convention;
- The use of mercury in dental amalgam, and the manufacture of vinyl chloride monomer, polyurethane, and sodium methylate are subject to phase down requirements;
- Air emissions from coal-fired power plants and industrial boilers; lead, zinc, copper, and industrial gold roasting and smelting processes; cement plants; and waste incinerators will be covered by the treaty. New (and substantially modified) sources within these sectors will be subject to BAT/BEP (Best Available Techniques/Best Environmental Practices), but existing sources (in existence one year after the Convention comes into force for that government) are subject to a wider range of possible regulatory regimes that need not be applied until 10 years after the Convention comes into force for that government;
- To address mercury use in small-scale gold mining, governments must implement national action plans to prohibit the worst practices, and undertake other measures to significantly reduce mercury use over time. To send the right market signals to miners and reduce mercury availability, mercury from mercury mines and chlor-alkali plant decommissioning cannot be used for small-scale gold mining once the Convention comes into force; and
- A special trust fund will be created within the Global Environmental Facility to support developing nations as they undertake activities to implement this Convention, and an additional source of funds will be made available to provide general capacity-building and technical assistance (perhaps ongoing support for focal points in developing countries working on multiple chemical treaties).
I’m glad the treaty is now a reality, and look forward to concentrating my efforts on making this treaty as effective as possible.