Posted on behalf of Jane Qiu
Four years of negotiations — involving both fierce wrangling and pragmatic concessions — have led to the first global, legally-binding treaty to prevent emissions and releases of mercury into the environment.
The expectation of the negotiations has dropped over the years — from an ambitious, if not unrealistic, goal in 2009 of totally eliminating mercury emissions to the abandoning last June of discussions aimed at an agreement for all countries to cap emissions.
The new treaty, agreed to by more than 140 nations on 19 January, was named after the Japanese city Minamata, where methyl-mercury-containing industrial waste water was discharged into the sea between 1932 and 1968, seriously damaging the health of thousands of residents.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury, which is expected to come into force in 3–5 years, will require countries with artisanal and small-scale gold mining to draw up national plans to reduce and, if possible, eliminate the use of mercury in such operations. The sector accounts for the largest slice, about 37%, of mercury emissions due to human activities.
The nations have also agreed to apply the best mercury-control technologies available to them to industrial facilities, such as coal-fired power plants, metal smelters and cement factories. This will be complemented by tightening national mercury-emission regulations and stepping up monitoring programmes.
The agreement also addresses mercury mining, international trade of the metal and safe storage of waste mercury. In addition, the manufacture and trade of a range of mercury-containing products — such as soaps, cosmetics, batteries, thermometers and fluorescent lamps — will be banned by 2020.
Support for developing countries is expected from the Global Environment Facility — an independent financial organization that provides grants to developing countries for environment projects — and a new programme once the convention is operational.
Some researchers and non-governmental groups (NGOs) have welcomed the treaty as a starting point to address mercury pollution. But others are concerned that it is too weak to reduce global mercury emissions or prevent future Minamata-like tragedies.
“[A]s it stands now, the treaty offers only vague or no options for controlling emissions from the world’s worst sources of mercury pollution,” said Joe DiGangi, senior science and technical adviser of the International POPs [Persistent Organic Pollutants] Elimination Network, or IPEN, a coalition of 700 NGOs in 116 countries, in a statement. “Without a more deliberate effort to curb these sources, we can anticipate that global mercury pollution will likely continue to increase.”
The convention will be opened for signatures at a special meeting at Minamata in October.