Global mercury treaty gets go ahead

A global legally binding treaty on mercury should be in place by 2013, after environment ministers from over 140 countries reached unanimous agreement at a UN meeting in Nairobi last Friday

Formal negotiations will start in 2010, after a preparatory meeting in Stockholm this autumn. The negotiating committee will develop provisions covering the supply of mercury and its safe storage, demand for use in products and processes, international trade, atmospheric emissions, mercury-containing waste and contaminated land remediation.

Ministers agreed that arrangements must be made for technical and financial assistance to developing countries, while there will be some flexibility on implementation periods.

Some countries had favoured provisions for the later inclusion of other heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. The agreement makes no direct mention of this, but the door has been left open for future changes as “the mandate of the intergovernmental negotiating committee may be supplemented by further decisions of the [UN Environment Programme] Governing Council.”

The agreement has been universally hailed as addressing a major threat to human health and the environment. The positive attitude of the new US administration was a key factor in the deal being secured, and is seen as a bellwether of its approach to the world environmental agenda. There was also support from emerging economies such as China and India, despite their heavy reliance on mercury-emitting coal-fired power stations.

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

In the run-up to a new treaty, ministers agreed on the need for accelerated action under the voluntary Global Mercury Partnership. Both the EU and US have recently agreed mercury export bans. The EU ban will enter into force in March 2010, with the US ban starting in January 2013.

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