Governments Prepare for Global Mercury Treaty's Entry into Force

22 June 2017

Governments are gearing up for the entry into force of a landmark global deal on curbing mercury emissions, scheduled for August this year.

At press time, 63 ratifications to the Minamata Convention on Mercury had been submitted, and there are 128 signatories. The accord was negotiated by some 140 nations that met four years ago to finalise the international binding treaty aimed at tackling the effects of mercury pollution on human health and the environment. (See Bridges Weekly, 17 October 2013)

The treaty was designed to go into effect 90 days after it had been ratified by at least 50 countries and passed this threshold last month when the EU and seven of its member states – Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, Malta, the Netherlands, Romania, and Sweden – submitted their instruments of ratification. As a result, the Minamata Convention will become legally binding for all of its parties on 16 August.

Mercury properties, risks

Mercury occurs naturally in our environment, and exists in three main forms: elemental mercury, inorganic compound, and organic compound (methylmercury). No level of exposure of any form is considered safe.

Elemental mercury is commonly used in products like thermometers, batteries, and fluorescent light bulbs and is released into the air through mining or the burning of fossil fuels, among other situations. Similarly, exposure to inorganic mercury often occurs in work environments where the compound is used.

Although exposure can occur through the handling of the substance, more damage results from inhaling fumes from emissions. Known health effects of exposure to these mercury types include significant lung damage at high vapour concentrations and organ abnormalities over a longer period of time.

As mercury levels in the environment rise due to anthropogenic emissions, methylmercury can end up in the food chain, especially in fish and shellfish, posing a serious risk to ecosystems and wildlife. Additionally, the toxic effects of mercury exposure on humans are magnified upon ingestion of contaminated organisms, which can lead to neurological damage and foetal developmental abnormalities. (See Bridges Weekly, 13 November 2014)

The adverse effects of mercury transcend boundaries because of the way that the substance can move through trade as a commodity, the atmosphere via emissions, and waterways as it is absorbed and converted into methylmercury, which can then enter the food chain.

In response, the Minamata convention establishes an international regulatory framework by which parties can curb the use and production of mercury, and considers ways to control and reduce air emissions and water releases while ensuring safer storage and improved waste management.

Measures include prohibiting new mercury mines and phasing out existing ones, while simultaneously reducing the use of mercury in various products and processes.

The deal also involves restrictions on the trade of mercury-added products and the substance itself, along with manufacturing prohibitions. However, some exceptions exist for medical products that lack good mercury-free alternatives.

Special attention has also been given to artisanal and small-scale gold mining in Article 7, which promotes “education, outreach, and capacity building initiatives; promotion of research into sustainable, non-mercury alternative practices; and provision of technical and financial assistance” as appropriate for achieving the convention’s objectives.

The convention’s trade-specific articles, most notably Articles 3 and 4, outline certification schemes for the safe handling and ensuring the mercury comes from permitted sources, which both party and non-party actors engaging in relevant trade would be required to abide by. Parties seeking to export mercury may only do so under the condition that the importing party has provided written consent to the exporter and has established a purpose of use, in line with those determined appropriate by the convention.

Coming up

Governments and other interested stakeholders met last year at the seventh session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Mercury (INC 7) to prepare for the first meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention (COP1), as well as the convention’s entry into force.

These preparatory talks included operation of the financial mechanism and procedures for the registration of notifications and exemptions as it pertains to trade. Deliberations also involved comprehensive ways of identifying stocks of mercury and mercury compounds, as well as developing robust emission controls.

COP1 is scheduled for 24-29 September in Geneva, Switzerland. The week-long event will afford delegates the opportunity to consider the various submissionsmade by various governments, universities, research organisations, and intergovernmental agencies.

Prior to COP1, the interim secretariat has organised a series of regional preparatory meetings scheduled throughout the month of July 2017. The first cluster of these meetings will be held for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, Thailand, from 5-7 July.

ICTSD reporting.

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