Governments Unanimous on 2009 Start to Mercury Treaty Talks

NAIROBI, Kenya, February 20, 2009 (ENS) – Environment officials from more than 140 countries today agreed to craft the world’s first treaty to control emissions of mercury, a toxic heavy metal that poses serious risks to human health and the environment. They agreed to voluntarily limit mercury at once, even before a treaty is finalized.

At the close of the UN Environment Programme’s annual Governing Council and Global Ministerial Environment Forum, governments unanimously decided to begin negotiations on an international mercury treaty to deal with worldwide emissions and discharges of the neurotoxin that threatens the health of hundreds of millions of people.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said, “Only a few weeks ago nations remained divided on how to deal with this major public health threat which touches everyone in every country of the world. Today we are united on the need for a legally binding instrument and immediate action towards a transition to a low-mercury world.”

U.S. delegate Daniel Fantozzi (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)

An indicator of that unity came on Monday during the Governing Council’s opening session when the Obama administration reversed the former U.S. position on limiting mercury pollution. Led by Daniel Fantozzi, director of the Office of Environmental Policy, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, U.S. Department of State, the delegation endorsed negotiations for the new global mercury treaty.

The environment officials attending the meeting agreed to take accelerated action under a voluntary Global Mercury Partnership even before the treaty is finalized because they view mercury exposure as a great risk to human health and the environment.

Under the voluntary partnership, governments will reducing the supply of mercury from primary mining of the heavy metal and increase their capacity to safely store stockpiled mercury.

They agreed to undertake projects that will reduce the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining where an estimated 10 million miners and their families are exposed.

Typically, gravel and mud are combined with liquid mercury, which binds to gold particles in the mix. Then the mercury-gold amalgam is heated to extract the gold. The mercury is vaporized and inhaled by the miners, and it travels far and wide to settle on bodies of water where it moves up the food chain into fish, causing health problems when the fish are eaten.

Mercury is used to extract gold by an artisanal miner in Ghana. (Photo courtesy Government of Ghana)

On the island of Mindanao, Philippines 70 percent of gold miners may have chronic mercury poisoning, and miners in Brazil, Venezuela, India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Ghana and Zimbabwe are suffering from poisoning or exposure. Long-abandoned North American gold mines are an ongoing source of mercury.

The wider economic arguments are compelling, says Steiner. UNEP estimates that every kilogram of mercury taken out of the environment can trigger up to $12,500 worth of social, environmental and human health benefits.

Before a treaty is even negotiated, governments agreed to reduce mercury in products such as thermometers and high-intensity discharge lamps as well as cutting mercury use in some kinds of paper-making and plastics production.

About one-third of the 6,000 metric tonnes of toxic mercury entering the environment annually is emitted by coal-fired power stations and coal fires in homes. Artisanal gold mining is the second-greatest source of mercury pollution in the world, after the burning of fossil fuels.

The World Health Organization says there is no safe limit of mercury exposure, and the ministers were informed that every one of them and everyone else alive today has some level of mercury in their bodies.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner (Photo courtesy ENB)

“UNEP has, for some seven years, coordinated and contributed to an intense scientific and policy debate on how best to deal with the issue of mercury,” said Steiner. Today the world’s environment ministers, armed with the full facts and full choices, decided the time for talking was over – the time for action on this pollution is now.”

Meanwhile there is evidence that far from declining, mercury pollution may be on the rise in part as a result of increased coal-burning in Asia.

“I believe this will be a major, confidence-building boost for not only the chemicals and health agenda but right across the environmental challenges of our time from biodiversity loss to climate change,” he said.

Environment ministers also backed a decision requesting UNEP to spearhead a mission to Gaza to assess the environmental impacts of recent hostilities and to carry out an assessment of the costs of rehabilitating and restoring environmental damage there. The UNEP team will be deployed “immediately” after a conference March 2 in Cairo, Egypt, on the reconstruction of Gaza.

Many of the ministers meeting this week believe that investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency alongside investments in natural or nature-based assets such as forests and freshwaters can power economies back to health, said Oliver Dulic, Serbia’s minister of the environment, who served as president of the Governing Council and Global Ministerial Environment Forum.

Serbian Environment Minister Oliver Dulic presided over the UNEP annual meeting. (Photo courtesy ENB)

“Moving to a green economy is overwhelmingly recognized as a means to deliver multiple benefits for the international community and all nations in addressing food, energy, water security and climate change,” said Dulic.

“Ministers of the environment must be ministers for sustained economic success. Creating a green economy goes hand-in-hand with sustainable development and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals,” he said.

Steiner agreed, saying, “Ministers from North and South here in Nairobi, through words and through deeds, have signaled that investing in the environment and greening economies is one of the keys to unlocking innovation, job creation, recovery and healthier and more sustainable world – not just on the question of mercury but right across sectors and societies.”

The UNEP chief said this attitude demonstrated by the ministers’ decision to significantly increase UNEP’s budget at a time of financial and economic crisis.

Governments also signaled their determination to stem biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystems. Today they called on UNEP to hold an international meeting this year to examine the pros and cons of establishing an “intergovernmental science-policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services” and an assessment on the scientific gaps in current knowledge.

Ecosystems are estimated to provide services worth many trillions of dollars, from carbon storage by forests to the coastal defense value of coral reefs.

Wangari Maathai addresses the UNEP closing session. (Photo courtesy ENB)

The UNEP executive director will report on the progress at the special session on biodiversity at the 65th session of the UN General Assembly in 2010.

Governments also decided to form a group of ministers from both developed and developing countries to improve the way the world’s environmental architecture is run. They aim to streamline and boost the ability of the global community to tackle persistent and emerging environmental challenges.

The environment ministers also voted to support Africa in the continent’s struggle to mitigate and adapt to climate change, including work with the UN Economic Commission for Africa to establish a climate center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Addressing the closing plenary session today, 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai of Kenya called on delegates to become “soldiers for the environment.”

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