GENEVA--Negotiators from more than 130 countries are hoping to finalize by
Jan. 18 the first international legal instrument on reducing the use of mercury
and limiting emissions into the environment, but officials said difficult issues
must be resolved before a deal can be reached.
The meeting in Geneva comes amid new warnings from environmental groups about
the cost of inaction, with two reports issued Jan. 9 citing “ubiquitous” mercury
contamination in marine and freshwater systems as well as the emergence
of global “hot spots” where elevated levels of mercury pose serious threats
to both ecosystems and human health.
The negotiations on the mercury treaty were launched in 2009, with the fifth International Negotiating Committee
meeting (INC5) that began Jan. 13 in Geneva set to be the final round of
talks. A diplomatic conference has already been scheduled for October in Japan
to open the text for signature.
Senior officials involved in the talks said differences to be resolved
include the selection of products and processes in which the current use of
mercury will be phased out and the deadline for achieving this, whether primary
mercury mining should be banned completely, and what compliance and financial
assistance provisions should be included in the treaty.
In a note to delegations circulated Jan. 3, United Nations Environment
Program (UNEP) Executive Director Achim Steiner said he has been “encouraged by
the determination and commitment that governments have demonstrated to the
“I continue to be confident that, even though there still are difficult areas
to be negotiated, governments will be able to arrive at a successful outcome by
the end of INC5,” Steiner said.
Negotiators are working from a new draft treaty text prepared under the
authority of Fernando Lugris, the Uruguayan chairman of the INC5 meeting.
The treaty as currently drafted would regulate the supply and trade of
mercury and the use of mercury in products and industrial processes. It would
outline steps to be taken to reduce emissions from power plants and metals
production facilities, ensure the safe storage and treatment of waste containing
mercury, and develop strategies for identifying and assessing contaminated
Speaking to reporters on the opening day of the meeting, Lugris said the
negotiations were expected to be intense, with diplomats meeting until midnight
each day in order to finalize a deal by the end of Jan. 18.
“We still have many challenges in front of us,” he said.
The chairman in particular cited developing countries' demands for financial
and technical assistance. “There’s no doubt that we have to find a balance
between control and means of implementation,” he said. “Developing countries
have been very vocal expressing the need to have a financial mechanism and a
mechanism to assist them in technology transfer and capacity building.”
On the control side, Lugris said issues that remain “more open to discussion”
include those related to supply and trade, products and processes, and air
emissions control and releases.
On products and processes, “we have a clear understanding on what the regime
is going to look like, but we need to finalize the annexes” listing the
categories of mercury-added products and manufacturing processes in which the
use of the metal will be phased out, he noted. “The issue of the list of
products is very much open and will be central in our discussions.
“We have to agree on a list of products here in Geneva, but we also have to
be clear that, if we cannot reach an agreement on some products, we need to
leave doors open for the convention to have a dynamic aspect allowing us to move
over time and have a very comprehensive regime,” the chairman added.
Lugris noted that a joint proposal from the European Union, Japan, and
Jamaica on a product and processes coverage list was expected to be the basis
for negotiations throughout the week.
That joint paper calls for the phaseout of mercury in products such as
batteries, switches and relays, fluorescent lamps, pesticides, measuring
devices, and soaps and cosmetics by 2018 (or 2020 for batteries and measuring
devices), and in processes such as chlor-alkali, polyurethane, and acetaldehyde
production by dates ranging from 2018 to 2025.
On primary mining, the draft text would require countries with primary
mercury mining in their territory to ban the sale and export of mercury from
The text, however, would exempt mercury for use in the production of vinyl
chloride monomer (VCM), which is used to make PVC plastic, instead requiring
producer countries to promote measures reducing its use. Environmental groups
complain that this exemption would allow Chinese plants to continue with a
highly polluting coal-based process for VCM production in which mercury is used
to spark the chemical reaction. According to 2009 industry figures, the
coal-based process was used at 94 of China's 104 VCM production plants.
One issue where compromise appears already to have been reached is on the use
of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), which has boomed
with the rise in the price of gold. A UNEP report issued Jan. 10 noted that ASGM
has surpassed coal burning as the world’s major source of mercury emissions and
is “by far the major contributor” to mercury emissions in South America and
sub-Saharan Africa (see related story).
The draft treaty text, which Lugris said reflected major progress made on the
issue at the most recent INC meeting in mid-2012, would allow mercury to be
imported for continued use in ASGM but subject to countries with ASGM drawing up
national action plans for reducing mercury emissions and releases (35 INER 707,
Perrez admitted that it was not realistic to seek a global agreement to end
the use of mercury in ASGM at this time.
The Swiss experience in providing development assistance to countries such as
Bolivia, Peru, and Venezuela on the issue shows that the problem of ASGM use of
mercury “cannot be solved through a ban,” he declared. ASGM “involves
communities that are already marginalized and work quite often in the gray zone
of legality. … Just banning it would not solve the problem.”
In a joint study issued Jan. 9, the U.S.-based Biodiversity Research
Institute (BRI) and the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) noted that
concentrations of mercury in the global environment have increased approximately
threefold as a result of human activities, though no time frame was specified.
While industrial emissions have declined in North America and Europe during the
past two decades, emissions have more than doubled in East Asia and India over a
similar time period.
The groups said their study, based on measurements taken in 17 countries
around the world, found that mercury contamination “is ubiquitous in marine and
freshwater systems around the world.”
“Fish samples from around the world regularly demonstrate mercury
concentrations exceeding human health advisory guidelines based on the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reference dose,” the two groups warned.
“Our findings demonstrate that 84 percent of the fish sampled were not safe for
consumption for more than one meal per month.”
The two groups also said that mercury “hot spots” with high concentrations of
the metal have become globally common, and that hair samples taken from around
the world “regularly demonstrate mercury concentrations exceeding human health
advisory guidelines based on the U.S. EPA reference dose level [of 1 part per
million], which translates to 82 percent above the guidelines.”
The groups noted the current draft version of the mercury treaty does not
require the identification and cleanup of contaminated sites, provides no
definition of hazardous mercury waste, and offers only "vague options" for
controlling mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, cement kilns, and
waste incinerators that exceed a certain output threshold.
“The results demonstrate the need for a mercury treaty that mandates true
reductions of mercury emissions--not just to air but to land and water as well,”
said Joe DiGangi, senior science and technical adviser with IPEN. “Mercury is a
large and serious global threat to human health that requires a robust and
ambitious global response.”
In a joint letter to EU environment ministers sent Dec. 20, three
nongovernmental organizations--the European Environment Bureau, the Health and
Environment Alliance, and the Zero Mercury Working Group--said the Geneva
meeting represents a “last chance” to develop a strong treaty to reduce mercury
The groups highlighted what they said was new scientific evidence in a
separate report issued by BRI in early December projecting a 50 percent increase
in mercury levels by 2050 in the Pacific Ocean if current pollution trends
The technical capacity exists to manage mercury pollution, and mercury-free
alternatives exist for nearly all products containing the metal, they argued.
“What is missing is the political will to make the necessary commitments to
phase out mercury use, and put the needed controls and alternatives in
The statements prompted a response from a U.S.-based fishing industry group
warning of “emotional rhetoric” and “questionable research” on the issue.
Commercially caught seafood “has always contained minimal traces of mercury
regardless of pollution levels,” the National Fisheries Institute declared Jan.
11. “In fact, levels of mercury in commercial seafood are just as they were
nearly 100 years ago.”
While mercury emissions do pollute lakes, streams, and rivers, the “vast
majority of the seafood we eat comes from the ocean or fish farms and is …
largely unaffected by emissions,” the organization added.
By Daniel Pruzin
More information on the mercury negotiations is available at http://bit.ly/WOUVoJ.
The report Global Mercury Hotspots is available at http://tinyurl.com/bxxrbu4.
The report Mercury in the Global Environment: Patterns of Global Seafood
Mercury Concentrations and their Relationship with Human Health is available