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INC5 – Final negotiations on the UN Global Legally Binding Treaty on Mercury

Geneva, Switzerland
Day 0 – Saturday 12th January 2013

Saturday 12th January saw the preliminary meetings on this historic new treaty. Delegates have until Friday 18th January to reach consensus on the wording and requirements of the new global legally binding treaty on mercury. A useful historic timeline reviewing the build up to this final round of negotiations is available here: http://www.iisd.ca/vol28/enb2816e.html

The IEA CCC, via Lesley Sloss, leads the Coal Partnership Area of UNEP which was formed to provide non-biased information on quantifying and reducing mercury emissions from coal combustion to the delegations. Work of the partnership has included providing guidance documents on mercury control, inventory work and the establishment of mercury reduction projects at full-scale plants. More details here: http://www.unep.org/hazardoussubstances/Mercury/InterimActivities/Partnerships/Coalcombustion/tabid/3530/language/en-US/Default.aspx

Although the proposed treaty will target mercury in all sectors – products, wastes, chor-alkali, medicine, dental practices, cement, non-ferrous metal industries, gold mining and so on – the blog from the IEA CCC this week will concentrate on the general outcomes of the deliberations and any potential effect they may have on the coal sector.

Day 0 of the negotiations was the opportunity for the UNEP partnership areas, NGOs and other organisations to provide final technical briefings to the delegations. UNEP has recently finalised an update of the global mercury inventory, evaluating emissions from ALL mercury sources including both natural sources and human activities worldwide. The updated report provides significantly more accurate estimates than the previous report (produced several years ago). Perhaps the most significant change is that, although the emissions from the coal combustion sector globally have increased in most regions, the estimated percentage contribution of the coal sector to global emissions has actually reduced slightly. This is largely due to the significant increase in the estimated emissions from artesanal (small-scale) gold mining. Emissions from gold production now dominate the global mercury emission budget. However, since the majority of artesanal gold mining using mercury is already illegal in most countries, this is a sector which will prove very challenging to control. Consequently, the second largest sector, coal combustion, is commonly seen as the most obvious target for mercury emission reduction requirements.

The general feel on Day 0 was a mixture of excitement, apprehension and reserved optimism. The delegates are aware that negotiations were starting a day early (Sunday 13th) and that the plenary sessions have been extended to 11pm. Previously the plenaries have started on the Monday and ended daily at 6pm. There is also the acceptance that breakout groups such as regional meetings and contact groups on target subjects (legalities, emissions, waste etc) will be required to work long hours. The dreaded “lock-ins”, where meetings are required to continue until consensus is reached, regardless of the time, are being regarded as almost inevitable this week.

Day 1 – Sunday 13th January 2013

As delegates arrived at the venue in Geneva (over 500 from around 140+ countries), activists handed out ribbons and held placards encouraging the delegations to work towards a historic and effective treaty. The negotiations opened with a video reminding the delegates of the devastating health effects of methylmercury pollution which resulted from the Chiba industrial pollution incident during the 1950s and 1960s in Minamata, Japan. The incident caused devastating health issues, with children being born with severe neurological problems resembling cerebral palsy. The film was therefore quite emotive and served to stress the importance of controlling the currently increasing concentrations of mercury in the global environment.

The opening plenary comprised the usual country interventions which concentrated largely on pleasantries and hopes for a successful week. A few interventions had substance – for example the US delegation pointed out the change of some wording in the draft from “should” to “shall”, reminding the delegations of how important it is that the treaty produced this week is both effective in terms of promoting changes in mercury-related practices as well as being technically and legally correct.

The second half of Day 1, which continued until 11pm, concentrated on the pre-amble text for the treaty, with countries asking for this to be as comprehensive as possible. The delegations then focussed on the issue of processes and products – ie what mercury-containing products must be banned, which should be phased out over time and which, if any, can remain. This covers quite contentious issues such as dental amalgam and thimerosol (used to stabilise vaccines) where parties on either side are quite vociferous in their views. Other discussions dealt with the situation for developing countries and whether the deadline for compliance could be extended by 10 years in some regions. As always, many countries stated that the treaty would be untenable without a financial support mechanism of some kind, including enabling mechanisms for technology transfer.

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