First agreement draws close on persistent organic pollutants

Substantial agreement on a new UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) protocol designed to restrict or end the production and use of more than a dozen persistent organic pollutants (POPs) is expected at a meeting on 16 June. Many of the participating countries intend to use the protocol to influence negotiations on a global treaty on POPs which begin early in 1998 - but environmental groups are looking to expand the scope of the global treaty in ways which would force major changes on the chemical industry.

The POPs protocol will be added to three existing protocols on sulphur and nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds agreed under the 1979 UNECE Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution. The UNECE embraces much of the former Soviet bloc and Canada and the USA as well as western Europe.

Work on the POPs protocol was accelerated early last year after negotiations on a revision of the existing protocol on nitrogen oxides ran into difficulties. But it was also spurred by the UNECE's decision to use the protocol to lay the groundwork for a global convention on POPs, work on which had been initiated in November 1995 (ENDS Report 250, p 41 ).

In mid-1995, a UNECE working group had proposed that the POPs protocol should:

  • Eliminate "as far as practicable" ten chemicals - aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, mirex, endrin, hexabromobiphenyl, hexachlorobenzene, PCBs and toxaphene.

  • Restrict the production and use of pentachlorophenol (PCP), lindane and chlorinated paraffins.

  • Introduce measures to substantially reduce environmental contamination by dioxins, furans and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, which are generally by-products of combustion.

    UNECE officials maintain that these chemicals were selected on the basis of their toxicity, persistence and bioaccumulative properties. But most observers believe that they were chosen because they are already so widely restricted or banned in UNECE countries that their inclusion would present no significant obstacle to a swift agreement.

    Outside the former Soviet bloc, only PCP, lindane and chlorinated paraffins of the listed compounds are still used, and for these less severe restrictions have been proposed. The pesticide chlordane is still manufactured in the USA for export to developing countries, but the producer, Velsicol, announced in May that its plant will shut down by the end of the year. The company also intends to end production of heptachlor, another pesticide which some countries want added to the UNECE list, at the same time.

    Arguments are still continuing over the content of the list. Some countries want PCP removed and chlordecone, another pesticide, added. The inclusion of chlorinated paraffins and lindane is also provoking intense debate.

    Other issues still to be resolved are:

  • The definition of a POP. Since the protocol is bolted on to a treaty on long-range air pollution, it is bound to be weighted towards air pollutants which can be shown to occur well away from where they are used. But several countries and environmental groups are concerned that the definitions and risk assessment requirements may not adequately cover many substances found more readily in other media - notably the marine environment - and which could or should be added to the protocol in future.

  • The criteria and procedure for expanding the list of substances or modifying the measures to be taken without making it necessary to renegotiate the protocol itself.

  • The base year and period for phasing out or restricting substances have yet to be formally agreed. For substances to be banned, this would take effect when the protocol comes into force (see below), but since most of the listed substances are banned in much of the UNECE area this is somewhat academic. But for those which are merely to be restricted the proposals vary.

    No accurate picture exists of what the protocol may cost industry or individual countries, although for the majority most of the costs will be in eliminating remaining uses of PCBs - probably by 2010 - and controlling dioxin emissions. Few countries will readily agree to significant new commitments.

  • Whether the protocol should specify emission ceilings or limits or simply offer guidance on the best available technology for curtailing POPs created as combustion by-products.

  • Whether constraints imposed on the production or use of specific chemicals can or will be extended to limit trade - especially the import or export of banned substances for use as intermediates.

    As it stands, the protocol will not prevent a firm in the UNECE area producing a banned or restricted chemical outside the region, although the Russians have proposed late changes designed to prevent the movement of plant and equipment. Despite the evidence of illicit trade in CFCs which is undermining the Montreal protocol on the ozone layer, specific measures to police or tackle illicit manufacture and trade have yet to receive serious attention.

    Lars Nordberg, Deputy Director of the UNECE's Environmental Division, told ENDS that while "some finer points might still be the subject of further negotiations at an additional meeting in September," he was confident that "sufficient progress" will be made at the meeting in June to allow the protocol to be formally adopted on schedule early next year.

    Once the protocol is adopted, 16 of the more than 40 signatories of the 1979 Convention will also have to ratify it before it can enter into force. This may take some time - neither of the two protocols agreed in 1994, on VOCs and sulphur dioxide, is yet in force.

    The pressure to adopt the protocol by early 1998 is considerable, and stems from the UNECE's goal to complete the agreement before the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) begins intergovernmental negotiations on a similar, but probably more wide-ranging, global treaty on POPs.

    The blueprint for a global treaty is being prepared by the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS), which was set up in 1994 to provide a new mechanism for international co-operation in implementing provisions on environmentally sound management of toxic chemicals in Agenda 21, the sustainable development agreement sealed at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.

    The IFCS formed an ad hoc working group on POPs which then convened an expert meeting and an open forum in Manila in the Philippines last July. The "Manila recommendations" which ensued from those meetings were adopted last February by UNEP's governing council, which asked UNEP to convene an intergovernmental negotiating committee to take charge of preparing a global convention on POPs from early 1998.

    Despite the race by the UNECE to tie down a POPs protocol before the UNEP negotiations begin, both environmentalists and industry have taken limited interest in the UNECE discussions because they expect a global instrument to be more important. But some participants believe that many of the parties more committed to the UNECE process are clearly hoping that most of the points agreed in the protocol will form the basis - and substantially constrain the scope - of a global negotiating text.

    The initial IFCS/UNEP list of chemicals for inclusion in the global convention is shorter than the UNECE's. At present, it excludes hexabromobiphenyl, PCP, chlorinated paraffins, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and chlordecone.

    However, the criteria used to determine which chemicals should be included in the list - immediately or in the future - will be wider if the Manila recommendations are adhered to, incorporating socio-economic and biodiversity impacts alongside different criteria relating to bioaccumulation, long-range transport and long-term persistence.

    Barbara Rutherford of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) believes that the latter issue will lie at the heart of the negotiations. "Industry has worked hard to ensure that its own, much more limited, risk assessment paradigm is not only enshrined in the UNECE protocol but will, as a result, be imported unchanged into a global POPs convention," she says. "UNECE's protocol is, however, far less precautionary than a global convention will need to be if it's to be effective."

    For this and other reasons, the global negotiations are likely to be much more difficult and protracted. On the way, many of the issues familiar to UNECE negotiators will resurface - not least how readily the list of chemicals covered can be expanded over time to include a much larger set of endocrine disrupting chemicals.

    A different set of problems may also substantially delay or even sabotage agreement on a global POPs convention - chief among them perhaps the question of trade. No global treaty will deliver a substantial change in business - and pollution - as usual unless the trade provisions are sufficient to put real pressure on non-signatories to comply. But world trade rules may make this difficult to achieve.

    As in recent international negotiations on the ozone layer and climate change, another key issue will be who pays for progress. To begin with, there is the question of who will pay to dispose of stocks of obsolete chemicals in the developing world. Equally, the G77 block of developing countries and the economies in transition may resist the imposition of a regime preventing them from using cheap chemicals if the countries which produced and used them for decades are unwilling to support the development of satisfactory alternatives.

    On this point, WWF's Barbara Rutherford argues that the UNECE protocol will achieve only "a limited amount about an environment now saturated with cheap polluting chemicals. From a global perspective, once you decide that you don't want POPs then you don't want them at all - a position most UNECE countries don't look like they will be pushed into. Yet countries such as China, India or Russia are unlikely to agree to move on the issue, let alone stop using these products, if the first world won't invest in affordable alternatives to support sustainable development."

    Another hot debate will be over whether the global treaty should be so precautionary as to require the elimination or phase-out of POPs produced unintentionally - notably dioxins and furans - from the life-cycles of other chemicals. Barbara Rutherford argues that such a stance would be a profound departure from the UNECE protocol. But WWF and other environmental groups will press hard for such an approach - knowing that it would force radical change on the chlorine chemicals industry.

    Jack Weinberg of Greenpeace USA, who served on the IFCS ad hoc working group, believes that the efficacy of a global POPs convention will depend on the degree to which it seeks to eliminate the sources of these pollutants.

    "When the world was confronted with smallpox, it had two options: work out a way to keep the problem to manageable proportions, or eliminate it and relieve the planet of that scourge. We will simply never eliminate POPs," he argues, "unless we cease producing the parent chemicals that generate by-products such as dioxins and furans. No matter how well controlled, monitored or policed it gets, continued production is not an option if we want to eliminate POPs. Given enough time and effort, there is also no overwhelming obstacle to prevent us doing that."

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