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Issue 34
March , 2012
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* FEATURE

Global efforts on Mercury Management

Satish Sinha, Associate Director, Toxics Link
Source: Toxics Link, Date: March , 2012

Mercury is a naturally occurring substance found in the earth’s crust and is mined like any other mineral. This shiny silvery metal is today recognised as one of the most potent toxic elements in the world with adequate information available on the toxicity levels of this metal and its adverse impacts on human health and environment. Mercury- a neurotoxin has the property to bio accumulate and Bio magnifies its trans-boundary characteristics and persistence thereby making it a very potent toxic element. Despite being highly toxic it has unique properties, making it suitable to much industrial and household usage across the globe. Mercury once brought into global circulation through products and processes, continues to exist in the environment in various forms and causes grave environmental and health ramifications. The mounting concerns have ultimately brought together global efforts in finding solutions to the vexed problems related with mercury.

These efforts have finally culminated in UNEP Governing Council (GC) 25/5 decision which mandates the UNEP to prepare a legally binding instrument on Mercury that could include both binding and voluntary approaches, including interim activities reducing risk to human health and environment. Development and completion of the contents of this has been long and highly consultative, involving a series of intergovernmental negotiations, commenced in 2010 and is required to be completed by 2013. With the major objective being efficient and effective mercury management it aims at:

* Reduction of Supply of mercury and enhance the capacity for its safe storage.
* Reduce the demand for its use in products and processes.
* Reduce the international trade of Mercury and
* Reduce the atmospheric emission of mercury.

Three rounds of intergovernmental negotiations have been completed and the draft instrument with various articles and many options are being discussed and negotiated among the countries. The process of consultations and negotiations though highly transparent are indeed complex, as the process attempts to address extremely diverse needs of various nations. The initial phase of the consultations focussed on identifying the issues and concerns around Mercury, while the subsequent discussions among nations is on the nature of the instrument, its specific provisions and its effectiveness also accommodating the specific needs of a country.

The ongoing conversation on the issue has at times tended to create a sharp divide between the developed and the developing countries. While the developed countries push for stronger provisions and strict timelines the developing countries negotiate for a more flexible term of engagement with the treaty. The third intergovernmental negotiations also clearly brought forth the issue of resource availability and the mechanism of efficiently managing it. Developing countries apprehend constrains in treaty implementation due to lack of resources on account of adoption of new technology in products and processes.

The Indian delegation has also been actively voicing their concerns on resource availability and the most appropriate mechanism for accessing these funds by countries. The bleak global economic scenario also poses a serious challenge to the donor countries.

Another alarming issue in the third intergovernmental negotiations has been of emissions, most developing countries are opposed to the idea of a mandated limit for emissions as they are largely dependant on coal based power plants for their energy requirements. Both India and China are bound by common interest on the issue of emission, their major source of energy being coal. Their contention being that the per capita energy consumption is much lower than developed countries and any attempt to limit emission will adversely impact growth and poverty alleviation programs. The Indian government has taken a strong non negotiable position on this issue, seeking a voluntary approach in dealing with emission and is supported by China, making it a very sticking issue and thus requires some deft negotiations to break the impasse.

While the position on mandatory emission levels for all thermal power plants has its own merit, it is though difficult to understand the argument of voluntary approach on Mercury management on all other articles covering issues of trade, storage, products and process etc. put forth by the Indian Delegation. India does not mine Mercury and has significantly reduced its total mercury consumption owing to the shift in the chlor alkali industry and is perhaps best placed to assume a leadership role in this treaty negotiation.

The two major sectors using Mercury in India are lighting and healthcare industry which are perhaps not so difficult to deal with and can be best negotiated even under the larger ambit of legally binding instrument. A more open conversation in house would be most appropriate mechanism for developing a national position on such issues rather than a closed room approach with no information to the larger population which in turn suggests that the communities have no opinions or thoughts on such issues and need not be consulted.

The global instrument on Mercury will go through a few more rounds of intergovernmental negotiations before being finalised and implemented. While the articles of the treaty are in place, it is the issue of exemptions and concessions that the countries negotiate which is dictated by the economic interest of respective countries. The treaty is likely to be finalised by 2013 but its effective implementation by countries is likely to be a long journey, till then we all have to live with varying amounts of mercury in the environment.

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