Global mercury deal

The new convention will be named after Minamata, a small town i Japan, where in 1956 it was discovered that fish poisoned with mercury was the cause of children being born with serious birth defects. Photo: marcmonaghan CC BY-NC-ND

On 19 January, after four years of deliberation, more than 140 countries agreed on the first global treaty to cut mercury pollution. It contains a mixture of mandatory and voluntary elements intended to control the growing global mercury crisis.

The new treaty covers all phases of the mercury cycle, from primary mining to waste disposal, including trade provisions, rules for artisanal and small-scale gold mining, products containing mercury and mercury emissions into the air.
Increasing gold prices have triggered a significant growth in small-scale mining where mercury is used to separate gold from the ore-bearing rock. Emissions from such operations and from coal-fired power stations are the biggest sources of mercury pollution worldwide.

“Adoption of a global legal agreement on mercury is a major accomplishment,” said Michael T. Bender, co-coordinator of the Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG), an international coalition of over 100 public interest NGOs from more than 50 countries. “Yet the instrument is hampered by weak controls on mercury emissions from major sources like coal-fired power plants.”

Countries agreed to install the best available technologies (BAT) on new power plants and facilities, with plans to be drawn up to bring emissions down from existing plants. But new facilities will not be required to have mercury pollution controls for five years after the treaty enters into force, with existing facilities given ten years before they begin their control efforts.

The initial ambition of the negotiations was to set thresholds on the size of plants or level of emissions to be controlled, but these issues were deferred until the first meeting of the treaty after it comes into force.

The production, export and import of a range of mercury-containing products will be banned by 2020. These products include: batteries, except for “button cell” batteries used in implantable medical devices; switches and relays; certain types of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs); mercury in cold-cathode fluorescent lamps and external electrode fluorescent lamps; and soaps and cosmetics.

The ZMWG expressed concerns about the treaty not reaching far enough nor fast enough to address the spiralling human health risks from mercury exposure. However, in spite of its flaws, the treaty is said to be a good starting point and presents a real opportunity to work towards significant reduction of mercury globally.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury needs ratification from 50 countries to enter in force. Countries will officially sign up to the new treaty at a special meeting in Japan in October, and it is expected to come into force in four to five years’ time.

Christer Ågren

Sources: Zero Mercury Working Group press release, 21 January and UNEP press release, 19 January.

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