Global treaty to tackle mercury pollution

21st January 2013


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Countries agree a new legally-binding convention to ban the use of mercury in batteries and restrict emissions from industry

After four years of negotiations, representatives from 140 UN member states rubber stamped the Minamata Convention on Mercury on 19 January, at the conclusion of a week-long summit in Geneva.

The convention, which member states will officially sign up to in October, aims to reduce the amount of mercury escaping into the atmosphere and water sources, by restricting its use in products, improving mining practices and ensuring the safe storage of waste mercury.

Mercury pollution causes significant harm to the environment and human health, including damage to the brain, kidneys and digestive system.

Under the convention, governments have agreed to ban the use of mercury in batteries, cosmetics, some energy-efficient light bulbs and certain medical devices, including thermometers, by 2020.

Measures to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, waste incineration and industrial activities, such as gold mining and smelting, were also agreed. The convention says best available technologies must be installed at new facilities, and that countries must develop plans to reduce emissions from existing ones.

Specific thresholds on the size of industrial plants or on the level of mercury emissions allowed to be released, however, were not included in the convention after member states decided to defer a decision on such targets until after the treaty comes into force.

Franz Perrez, from Switzerland’s federal ministry for the environment, said: “[The convention] will help us to protect human health and the environment all over the world and is a proof that multilateralism can work when political will exists.”

David Lennett, from the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the convention was only a starting point. “This treaty will not bring immediate reductions of mercury emissions. It will need to be improved and strengthened, to make all fish safe to eat,” he claimed.

With UN states to officially sign up to the treaty in the autumn, the convention is unikely to be fully enforced until 2018.

In 2010, around 2,960 tonnes of mercury was released into the environment as a result of human activities, according to estimates from the UN’s environment programme (UNEP).

In its Global mercury assessment 2013, UNEP warns that, while mercury output was relatively stable between 1990 and 2005, emissions from burning fossil fuels, metal and cement production increased output between 2005 and 2010.

“Without improved pollution controls or other actions to reduce mercury emissions, mercury emissions are likely to be substantially higher in 2050 than they are today,” states the report.

According the UNEP’s figures, burning coal released 475 tonnes of mercury into the air during 2010, and industrial sites were responsible for 185 tonnes of mercury reaching waterways.

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