Mercury update – ICMGP 2015, Jeju, South Korea and the Minamata Convention

The 11th International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant (ICMGP) was held in Jeju Island, South Korea on 14-19 June 2015. The previous meeting had been held in Edinburgh in 2013, with myself as chair and so I can assure you that this conference is both challenging and rewarding to run. Attendance numbers were down a little this year, probably as a result of the slightly more awkward travel requirements to get to Jeju Island. The outbreak of MERS in S Korea the week before led to several last minute cancellations and a suspected outbreak at one of the conference hotels meant that some delegates went home early. But despite this, the conference was a clear success – a beautiful location, fantastic venue, full and vibrant sessions and an unparalleled number of side meetings which meant that every hour of most days and evenings could be spent learning and networking. Over 1500 papers and posters were presented within 6 parallel sessions. Topics ranged from volcanoes and aquatic ecosystems, to fossil fuels and human health effects.

Clearly I can only report on those sessions and papers I attended but, for me, it is obvious that the standard of work on mercury is increasing and awareness is growing. Encouragingly, declining emissions are also being reported. Interesting results were presented suggesting that mercury emissions from China peaked in 2014. Emissions from the coal sector are expected to continue to decline leaving zinc smelting and mobile oil combustion as the remaining major sources in the country beyond 2020. Another paper reported that mercury control in standard coal-fired power plants (fitted with flue gas control systems for particulates, SOx and NOx but without mercury-specific controls) in China can be as high as 97%, which is impressive but, unfortunately, probably rather unique. If all power plants could achieve this then the coal sector would not have a mercury issue. A paper from India admitted that information on mercury emissions in the country is sparse and that any data given have huge uncertainty values. However, it was suggested that the application of FGD (flue gas desulphurisation for SOx control) in the country could reduce mercury emissions by 24% before 2050. This would be a start but would be somewhat unimpressive compared against both the achievements of other countries and against what could/should be achieved if the convention is ratified. India faces a huge challenge with respect to reducing its emissions but there are both solutions and funding available to assist in achieving this goal.

The ICMGP is very much entwined with the Minamata Convention – both working to raise awareness of mercury in the environment and to coordinate work to help reduce emissions and effects. As of this week (end of June 2015), the Minamata convention has 128 signatures and 12 ratifications. It needs 50 ratifications to move into force. At the moment, aside from the USA, those ratifying are mostly small nations with arguably less challenging mercury problems than most – for example, Madagascar is the latest signatory, joining countries such as the Seychelles, Monaco, Lesotho and Nicaragua. The GEF (Global Environment Facility) has made $141 million available for countries to work on their inventories and potential national actions plans in an effort to encourage more nations to ratify. Many countries, such as Japan and S Korea, are in the final stages of preparing for ratification. Many European countries are also preparing for ratification and the European Commission is already editing changes into the BREFS (best available technology reference documents) under the IED (Industrial Emissions Directive) to ensure that mercury control at coal-fired power plants is adequate at all plants.

Entertainment at ICMGP

Work has already begun to establish the BAT/BEP (best available technologies, best environmental practice) guidelines that will apply if they are approved during the COPs (conference of the parties) of the convention. Only countries which have ratified can attend and provide input at the COPs and therefore only these countries will have a say on how the convention will be applied in practice. Those which ratify later will have to accept the convention as it has been formed by early ratifiers. UNEP expect ratification to happen within the next 12-18 months. Once 50 ratifications are obtained and the convention starts to move into force, UNEP expect a further flurry of ratifications from countries who wish to ensure that they are involved in the COP discussions.

The BAT/BEP guidelines for coal under the convention have been prepared by an expert international working group assisted by the UNEP Coal Partnership which, in turn, is lead by the Clean Coal Centre. The draft guidelines are currently out for comment and can be accessed here:

The next, and potentially last, round of negotiations on the Minamata convention are scheduled to take place in Jordan on the 7-11th March 2016 and this is when the proposed BAT/BEP guidance on coal will be introduced into the discussion.

With this ICMGP conference and the UNEP Minamata Convention, there is a lot happening in the field of mercury and its control in coal combustion systems. For those who are interested in finding out more, the IEA CCC has plenty of information to hand. The IEA CCC has produced numerous reports on this issue and continues to lead on the UNEP Coal partnership as it has done for over 7 years. Within this position, the CCC has lead projects in India, South Africa, China and Russia, funded by the European Commission. The CCC is currently leading a $130K project on mercury monitoring and inventory work in Vietnam and hopes to expand this to similar projects in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, based on generous funding from the US State Department. A new $6 million demonstration project for mercury control at two full-scale coal plants in Vietnam is currently being proposed for funding under the GEF and, within this, the CCC will take a significant roll in capacity building and knowledge transfer.