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  • Nations agree first global treaty to ban mercury emissions

A legally binding global treaty to curb mercury in the environment, agreed after a week of gruelling negotiations in Geneva, will also include a funding facility to assist developing countries in phasing out the toxic heavy metal in industrial processes and in artisanal gold mining in Africa, Asia and Latin America

The Minamata Convention on Mercury, named after the Japanese port where people suffered serious health effects from mercury pollution in the 1950s, was agreed by more than 140 countries after week-long talks in Geneva leading up to all-night negotiations on Saturday (19 January).

SPEED READ

  • More than 140 countries have agreed to a treaty to cut mercury emissions
  • Developing nations may get up to US$100 million a year to help fund the required technologies
  • But provisions on reducing mercury pollution from small-scale gold mining are too weak, critics say

It was a "herculean task", says Fernando Lugris, the Uruguayan diplomat who chaired the latest set of negotiations, which have taken four years in total.

The treaty includes a phased-in ban on the use of mercury in many industrial processes and in products such as thermometers, batteries and lamps. It will introduce a ban on primary mercury mining and mercury emissions from new power plants to take place within 15 years of the treaty coming into effect, as well as measures to reduce mercury releases from existing plants.

It also includes controls on the export and import of the heavy metal and measures to ensure the safe storage of waste mercury.

But no target dates were agreed for phasing out the use of mercury in subsistence, or 'artisanal', and small-scale gold mining. This is "by far the major contributor" to mercury emissions in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, according to a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report entitled 'Mercury: Time to Act', which was published this month.

Instead, countries must draw up national action plans to reduce mercury use in the sector within three years of the treaty coming into force.

The treaty did not ban use of mercury as a preservative in vaccines, which many in the public health community feared would make vaccines more expensive and harder to deliver safely.

If the treaty is fully implemented most global mercury use could be eliminated by 2020, according to the delegates. Around 50 countries must ratify the treaty for it to come into being — a process that could take another three years.

"Overall the message from the negotiations is that mercury use will go down, and [industries] will need to find something else [to replace it]. It is an important signal to the market," Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, Brussels-based co-coordinator of global campaign group the Zero Mercury Working Group, tells SciDev.Net, adding that alternatives now exist for most mercury-containing products.

Noelle Selin, assistant professor of engineering systems and atmospheric chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States, says: "Because mercury lasts so long in the environment, any avoided emissions have long-term benefits".

Funding phase-out in developing countries

Independent international funding organisation the Global Environment Facility (GEF), will help pay for technical assistance and technological investments to help reduce or eliminate mercury, under a proposed mercury 'trust fund', it was agreed.

"There was strong support among negotiators for GEF to finance the new convention," says Lugris.

At the meeting, Naoko Ishii, CEO of GEF, said she was committed to securing "new and additional" financial resources to implement the treaty.

This is a major victory for developing country negotiators who had been pressing for funding assistance.
Switzerland's chief negotiator, Franz Perrez, head of the International Affairs Division of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, says the target amount for the mercury fund has yet to be established.

"Figures have been put forward of between US$50 million and US$100 million," he tells SciDev.Net.

In addition, Japan, Norway and Switzerland have each promised US$1 million as "interim funding" to help developing countries carry out the work needed before the treaty is signed in Minamata, Japan, in October.

This includes assessing the needs of countries in order to comply with the treaty "to develop inventories of where mercury emissions are taking place and for drawing up national plans. Each country has to determine what will have to be done," Perrez says.

Such data "will be key to the success of the new treaty", UNEP executive director Achim Steiner said during the talks.

A steep hill to climb

"It remains to be seen how effective the treaty is going to be. Just signing the treaty won't be enough: developing countries will need the technology [to comply with the treaty provisions]," Selin says.

Under the new rules, new power plants and industrial facilities will have to ensure that they are using the "best available technology" for reducing mercury emissions.

Delegates said it could cost tens of billions of dollars to carry out the changes envisaged in the treaty, including installing mercury filters and scrubbers in hundreds of coal-fired power plants in China and India.

East and South-East Asia account for about 40 per cent of anthropogenic mercury emissions into the atmosphere — with China producing about a third of global emissions — and South Asia a further eight per cent, according to the UNEP report 'Global Mercury Assessment 2013', which was published during the talks.

Selin said that funding must be focused on the biggest mercury sources that caused the greatest environmental harm. "What's going to be important is to get the most bang for the buck," she says.

The biggest need will be to fund the best techniques and practices and to apply emission standards to current facilities, Perrez says. "This will be the most expensive part for developing countries". Tackling artisanal mining will require less money, he adds.

The challenge of artisanal mining

The UNEP mercury assessment report found that emissions related to small-scale gold mining in developing countries, which escalated as the price of gold rose, had risen since 2005 to account for more than half of global mercury emissions.

But environmental groups say the provisions on artisanal mining are among the weakest in the treaty, and could be hard to enforce.

"Mercury artisanal and small-scale gold mining is already illegal in Brazil, but it is very complicated to control," says Zuleica Nycz in Geneva for the Brazilian environmental health non-governmental organisation Toxisphera, which is a member of the country's National Chemical Safety Commission.

"Most of it, for example in the Amazon basin, is clandestine, and mercury is still entering the environment," she says.

Link to UNEP's 'Mercury: Time to Act' report

Link to UNEP's 'Global Mercury Assessment 2013' report

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