The fifth and final round of negotiations on the establishment of an international mercury convention opened today in Geneva. The final meeting of the International Negotiating Committee on Mercury (INC5) is taking place until Friday 18 January. It is expected to culminate in the adoption of a global, legally binding treaty regulating the use of mercury from production to waste management. Almost 900 registered delegates from over 130 countries and 115 NGO representatives gathered in Geneva to address the threat posed by mercury to human health and the environment.

Since 2003, together with Norway, Switzerland has requested the initiation of negotiations under the umbrella of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for the reduction of global mercury emissions. In 2009, the international community through the 25th session of the UNEP Governing Council agreed to address mercury at the global level. In 2010, the first International Negotiating Committee on Mercury (INC1) started the negotiation process.

A UNEP Global Mercury Partnership was formalized to take immediate action to reduce the risks to human health and the environment from the release of mercury and its compounds to the environment. As of December 2012, this Partnership comprises 116 official partners, including 25 governments, 5 intergovernmental organizations, 46 NGOs, and 40 other stakeholders (global associations representing industry sectors or global civil society consortia). It has provided expertise and information for decision-makers involved in the negotiation process and is expected to oversee the implementation of the future convention on mercury.

As Tim Kasten, Head of UNEP's Chemicals Branch, explained “mercury as an element will always be with us” and the goal is to minimize to the extent possible man-made emissions of this highly toxic and volatile metal to air and its releases to land and water. Although UNEP has been involved in the negotiation of other multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) regulating toxic chemical products in the past, it is the first time it has to deal with a natural element such as mercury which has many complexities.

Mercury is not only a local issue but one that affects all nations as a global community. It travels through air, water, the food chain, and products such as cosmetics and vaccines. Every year, about 2,000 tonnes of mercury are emitted into the atmosphere throughout the world. Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), the production of ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and deforestation are the main sources of these emissions.

Deputy Head of UNEP Chemical Branch David Piper explained that UNEP's latest report Global Mercury Assessment 2013 indicates that the global demand for mercury is decreasing but emissions continue to increase in developing countries where ASGM is practised. Chief Environmental Scientist to the Nigerian Ministry of Environment, Abiola Olanipekun, pointed out that a lack of awareness of the dangers of exposure to mercury contributes to the levels of pollution and intoxication in developing countries. However, as industrialisation proceeds, emissions will tend to decrease with the use of better technology and pollution-control mechanisms.

Leader of the Swiss delegation H.E. Franz Perrez emphasized that developed and developing countries need to compromise on this issue. He further underlined that from the Swiss perspective, “compromising does not mean searching for the lowest common denominator, but finding together the most effective common solution to address a global challenge”. Clear obligations and commitments with regard to reducing the supply, limiting trade and phasing out products containing mercury are necessary. Financial support, access to technology and strong implementing mechanisms will be key in securing compliance with the convention.

The INC5 will report back to the 27th session of the UNEP Governing Council in a month. Chair of the INC5 Fernando Lugris said the the international community has a text to work with and the negotiating committee has a “high level of ambition”. He is confident an agreement will be reached by Friday.

Photo in frontapage © DR

Photo © Alphée September