On Friday world governments took the first significant steps towards a Legally Binding Treaty to control mercury pollution at a United Nations Environmental Program meeting in Bangkok, Thailand. Their recommendations now provide countries with a basis to head into the International Negotiating Committee (INC) meetings in Stockholm.
"We are very satisfied with the outcome of the meeting," said Nina Cromnier, who is Head of Division at the Swedish Ministry of the Environment and who led the EU delegation. "There are now good prospects of the negotiations moving at a good pace and being completed within the timeframe set by world environment ministers. That would set something of a record for negotiations on an environmental convention of this scale. And the fact that Sweden has been entrusted with representing the EU in the bureau for the negotiations makes it feel extra special."
World environment ministers agreed in February 2009 that negotiations would begin on a global mercury convention covering all types of use and emissions. The aim is for a convention to be finalised by 2013. The first negotiations meeting will be held in Stockholm on 7-11 June 2010 and will be jointly organised by the Nordic Council of Ministers and Sweden.
Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that makes its way up the food chain into humans. It is a global pollutant that travels long distances. Its most toxic form, methylmercury, accumulates in large predatory fish and is taken up in our bodies through eating fish, with the worst impacts on babies in utero
and small children.
Sweden banned the use of mercury on 1 June 2009. Most of the mercury that falls on Swedish soil comes from other countries. Consequently, to reduce the pollution of the Swedish environment measures must be taken at all levels - locally, in the EU and globally.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which has commissioned a study of the situation, mercury is now present in the environment and food (particularly fish) at high enough concentrations to harm both people and the environment. Even regions without mercury emissions, such as the Arctic, are adversely affected because mercury can be transported over long distances by air. Population groups that eat a lot of fish, shellfish and marine mammals are particularly at risk.
Reacting to Bangkok decision, Elena Lymberidi-Settimo of the European Environmental Bureau and the Zero Mercury Working Group, said, "We are happy that governments agreed on rules of procedures, which allow NGO participation, and a time table to adopt a treaty by 2013," said.
During the meeting, information on supply and trade, products and artisanal scale gold mining were provided. Countries and regions expressed their opinion on how discussions should unfold in the INC meetings, and governments updated participants on activities controlling mercury in their own countries.
'We look forward to engaging in focused discussions in areas such as supply, trade and storage of surplus mercury where substantial progress can be made," said Michael Bender of the Zero Mercury Working Group and director of the US-based Mercury Policy Project. "Discussion on arrangements for technical and financial assistance, and mechanisms addressing compliance should also be addressed early on."'
Richard Gutierrez of the Philippine NGO Ban Toxics noted, "We are optimistic that the global community is now well on its way towards establishing a treaty to control mercury pollution and effectively safeguarding the fish we eat from this poison."
Meanwhile the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that would cut mercury and soot pollution at coal and oil fired power plants, with strict new rules to be issued in 2011. The action was the result of a lawsuit by environmental and public health groups along with several states and cities. Under the previous administration the EPA had proposed looser rules in the form of a cap-and-trade system for mercury in 2005, but the courts ruled out the maneuver last year.
Coal fired power plants are the single largest source of mercury emissions in the U.S., but they are just one among many. This year - under a new administration - the EPA has moved to address emissions from other significant sources, like cement plants.
Last summer, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced legislation that would end the use of mercury in chlorine production. Only four chlorine plants in the U.S. still use mercury-based technology, which is out of date, but their contribution to environmental mercury is still significant.
And just last week, the EPA proposed new rules for emissions from cargo ships, which are a significant source of airborne pollutants including mercury. Gold mining and incinerators (depending on the type of trash they handle) are two other significant sources of mercury in the environment, which the U.N. program is exploring through the development of non-mercury products (thermometers are one recent example), and responsibly mined gold.