Work on implementing global mercury treaty advances

12 November 2014

Representatives from over 120 governments gathered last week in Bangkok, Thailand to continue their work towards the implementation of an international binding treaty aimed at curbing mercury pollution.

Following the adoption of the Minamata Convention on Mercury in October 2013 at a diplomatic conference held in Kumamoto, Japan, negotiators must now hash out the details required to put the new instrument into practice.  (See BioRes, 17 October 2013)

Technical issues were particularly high on the agenda at the sixth session of the intergovernmental negotiating committee to prepare a global legally binding instrument on mercury (INC6), as the group charged with steering the interim period between the Convention’s adoption and entry into force is formally known.

Key areas discussed by delegates included voting rules on Convention-related decision making, financing for a permanent secretariat to facilitate implementation, and the tracking of mercury supply and trade.

Concerns were also raised around the financial implications of adhering to the new mercury rules, although those talks ultimately resulted in the establishment of an ad hoc working group of financing experts. The body is due to set up a programme to assist developing countries with implementing the Minamata rubric.  

International mercury governance

Governments had reached agreement at a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) high-level meeting in February 2009 to hammer out a legally binding instrument on mercury governance, in recognition of the challenges posed by the metal element, with a text eventually clinched in January last year. (See BioRes, 28 January 2013)

The Minamata Convention, named after a devastating industrial pollution incident in the coastal Japanese town in the mid-twentieth century, targets various mercury-containing products for phase-out by 2020. Measures for regulating the artisanal and small-scale gold mining industry are also included, together with emissions controls.

Mercury is a naturally occurring, widespread metal element, and exposure to it in various forms is considered highly toxic for humans, with known effects including fetal neurological damage, lowered fertility, nerve impairment, and heart disease. Excessive mercury levels in the environment can also have detrimental ecological impacts.

Mercury is released into the atmosphere through its use in various products but also through activities such as industrial processes, mining, deforestation, waste incineration, and the burning of fossil fuels.

Elemental mercury has traditionally been used in manufacturing products such as thermometers, switches, batteries, and energy-saving light bulbs. The danger from this form comes from inhaling fumes rather than handling the substance itself.  Methylmercury, a type of organic mercury that builds up in fish and shellfish as a result of high mercury levels in the environment, presents serious health threats when ingested.

Trade issues

Among the areas tackled by negotiators last week was the format and content of trade notification forms designed to help eventual Minamata participating countries track mercury imports and exports.

According to ENB reporting, some delegates called for governments to list all possible sources of mercury, and for exporting countries shipping mercury to provide information such as transit countries and sources.  Others said that such level of detail was excessive vis-à-vis the Convention requirements.

Consensus eventually swung towards the latter position and the group adopted an agreed outcome on four forms – covering both parties and non-parties – in relation to Article 3 of the Convention, which deals with the tricky areas of mercury supply sources and trade.  While three of those relate to the consent for importing mercury, one involves non-party certification on the source of mercury when the export destination is a party to the Convention.

Agreement around a draft text on reporting requirements, however, did not prove as forthcoming, with the topic expected to resurface at the group’s next meeting. Delegates considered questions relating to scope, structure, and style of questions in a draft reporting form that countries would submit to the Convention. Questions around capacity were reportedly raised, with some countries highlighting the specific technology required to measure mercury emissions.

Entry into force?

While the Convention has been adopted, it will go into effect after at least 50 countries and territories ratify it, with eight having done so thus far. The ratification progress is expected to take between three to four years.

According to the mandate given by governments at Minamata’s adoption, a second interim session will need to be held prior to the first Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention, although dates have yet to be confirmed.

More implementation talk is likely for the eventual INC7, many participants said, with certain key issues still to be addressed to ensure the effective functioning of the instrument.

ICTSD reporting; “Summary of the Sixth Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to Prepare a Global Legally Binding Instrument on Mercury,” ENB, IISD REPORTING SERVICES, 10 November 2014.

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