After four years of intense negotiations, a global binding treaty on mercury has been adopted at the Plenipotentiary Conference which took place in the Japanese cities of Kumamoto and Minamata from 9 to 11 October 2013.
The treaty, known as Minamata Convention on Mercury, aims to regulate the anthropogenic emissions and releases of the metal and its compounds in order to protect human health and the environment. The convention is now open for signatures and will come into force on the 90th day following ratification by at least 50 countries.
The Convention is named after the Japanese city where mercury releases from a factory contaminated fish that eventually led to one of the most serious mercury poisoning in history.
As observed in the victims of the Minamata disease in 1956, and the metal and its various compounds have a range of serious health impacts including brain and neurological damages, memory loss, and damage to the digestive system and to the kidney especially among infants, children, and women of child-bearing age.
The discussion regarding the need to address mercury pollution at a global level given its significant adverse impacts on human health and the environment is not new. Since 2001, governments have been debating how to implement an international treaty through the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GC/GMEF). Then, in February 2009, the GC of UNEP agreed on the development of a global, legally binding instrument on mercury through a series of five Intergovernmental Negotiating Committees (INCs) sessions. The meetings culminated in Geneva on 19 January 2013 where governments agreed on the text of the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
According to the new treaty, the production, export, and import of a range of mercury containing products will be banned by 2020, including certain batteries and switches, light bulbs, cosmetics, pesticides and medical equipment such as thermometers. The use of mercury to separate gold from the ore-bearing rock in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) sector is also targeted by the treaty.
“Globally, the beneficiaries of the treaty are anybody who eats fish and, locally, anybody who is occupationally exposed to mercury, particularly artisanal miners, and within that group particularly women and children living in artisanal mining communities,” says Kevin Telmer, Executive Director of the Artisanal Gold Council (AGC) and partner of UNIDO and UNEP.
UNIDO has been actively involved in the technical advisory group of the Global Mercury Partnership (created by UNEP in 2008) to the Convention throughout its negotiations. The partnership is the main mechanism for the delivery of immediate actions on mercury and UNIDO plays an important role as the ASGM sector co-lead with the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), an NGO based in Washington, D.C.
“Through the partnership, UNIDO has already managed to develop many inclusive projects which are paving the way to solving the mercury pollution problems in areas such as artisanal and small-scale gold mining, non-ferrous metal smelting and mercury-containing wastes,” says Ludovic Bernaudat, a UNIDO expert on mercury.
Currently, ASGM is a major source of mercury release and environmental pollution. Bernaudat says that, according to UNIDO estimates, nearly 100 per cent of the metal used in the sector is released into the environment. Once emitted or released, mercury persists in the environment where it circulates between air, water, sediments, soil, and living organisms, extending environmental and heath risks well beyond the point of origin. Mercury’s propensity for long range transport through water, its chemical transformation and tendency to bio accumulate make it a threat not only to the health of miners and of ecosystems at the local level, but also to the environmental health of the global community.
Although UNIDO’s Mercury Programme has traditionally focused on the ASGM sector, more recently the organization has demonstrated its comparative advantage outside of this sector by expanding into other mercury pollution areas such as the chlor-alkali, vinyl chloride polymer (VCM) production, and waste management sectors. During a intergovernmental preparatory meeting preceding the Conference, from 7 to 8 October, UNIDO hosted a side event to present several industrial issues and solutions related to the problems and the needs of the aforementioned sectors. In addition, invited experts and representatives of the private sector illustrated several examples of practical technical solutions.
The adoption of the Minamata treaty will be both an opportunity and a challenge for developing countries to fulfill the commitments of the Convention. While most industrialized countries have reduced their use of mercury in recent decades, developing economies have, in contrast, seen a steep rise in its usage.
“Based on its experience and competitive advantage, UNIDO will have an important and increasing role to help countries introduce cleaner technologies and policy reforms in order to minimize the uses and emissions of mercury,” says Bernaudat. “Specifically, the promotion of Best Available Technologies (BATs) and Best Environmental Practices (BEPs) can be achieved through capacity building, technology transfer, and awareness raising.”
According to Kevin Telmer, all the international organizations need to have some early successes to build momentum to ensure the treaty is effective and results are seen as quickly as possible. “UNEP needs to organize all stakeholders and effectively communicate between them, ensuring that experiences are shared, and coordinate efforts. UNIDO needs to increase the implementation of projects and adopt innovative approaches, something we are already seeing,” says Telmer.
Since 2008, the UNIDO mercury team has managed to raise over USD 6 million of project funds and leverage more than USD 12 million in co-financing in 11 countries. The GEF has been the major source of support but bilateral support has also been provided by the governments of Finland and France. "Together with our financing partners, we stand ready to continue and expand our assistant to the signatories of the Convention in order to ensure a rapid ratification," says Bernaudat.
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UNIDO Water Management Unit