GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Unep (UN Environmental Protection agency) negotiations to establish a mercury convention ended in Geneva Wednesday evening 16 January with more of a whisper than a bang, in terms of world press coverage. Mercury has been an issue for so long, since the Japanese discovered in 1956 that it caused Minamata disease, that the growing seriousness of the problem has trouble catching the public eye.
And yet, the scope of the problem is daunting, judging by a new body of research, much of it done by environmental advocates who are pushing hard for a convention that will sharply reduce emissions and clean up environmental damage, and a new report by Unep.
Mercury is a heavy metal that is liquid at ambient temperature. It is very volatile and highly toxic to humans, animals and the environment. It enters our environment through a number of doors, including coal-fired power plants, cement plants, landfills, urban sewage systems, and artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
Unep’s report, Global Mercury Assessment 2013 shows the difficulty of obtaining accurate numbers on emissions, but it also shows good progress made in this area. It’s been confirmed, for example, that small-scale gold mining accounts for about one-third of new emissions, followed by the production of ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and cement production.
The report shows disturbing trends and, for the first time, it quantifies mercury in our water systems, some 1,000 tons of it: previous reports looked at mercury in the air and although the estimated range is about 1,200 to 4,000 tons, 1,960 tons is the most widely used figure. The amount of mercury in the top 100 metres of the world’s oceans has doubled in the last 100 years, the new figures indicate.
For gold mining, “Much of the activity is unregulated or even illegal, and thus reliable official data are still hard to obtain,” according to the repor, but coal production is easier to track, since much of it is industrial. Overall, emissions from coal peaked in the 1970s, then fell until abou 1990, remained stable until 2005 and then levels began to rise again. “Use of coal for power generation and industry is increasing, especially in Asia. However, wider use of air pollution controls and more stringent regulations in several countries, together with improved combustion efficiency, have reduced emissions from coal-burning power plants, helping to offset most of the increase arising from higher coal consumption.”
The fifth and final round of talks in Geneva to create a binding treaty that now needs to be ratified is a start, but it’s hard to find voices who feel that the convention is strong enough.
Switzerland’s minister for the environment, Doris Leuthard, said late Wednesday that the aim of the convention is to reduce harmful mercury emissions at global level. To this end, she told the 140 nations’ representatives, the production and use of mercury must be reduced, particularly in relation to manufacturing and industrial processes. The convention must also regulate the storage of waste containing mercury.
A bright note, in a world where the media tend to portray the US and China as adversaries on all fronts, came when the US backed a Chinese suggestion that it could provide guidance on best available technologies in order “to move forward between addressing thresholds, limits and sources in the treaty and text that would allow countries to deal with these issues in their National Implementation Plans when they go back home,” reports Ecowatch.org. The two countries are among the largest coal producers with major mercury emissions.
Robert F Kennedy Jr and Marc Yaggi wrote before the Geneva meeting, in the Guardian, that “Sadly, the treaty does not require identification or remediation of contaminated sites, does not require polluters to pay for health damages or environmental clean-up, or provide for protection from similar disasters occurring anywhere in the world. In fact, the treaty is not expected to reduce global levels of mercury in fish and seafood at all. Poisonous mercury raining down from coal-fired power plants has contaminated fish in every US state.”
Progress has been made, the authors say: “In America, citizen action forced EPA to adopt the first ever mercury and air toxics rule in 2012. This rule will prevent 90% of the mercury in coal burned at power plants from being emitted into the air. Experts estimate the rule will, among other things, prevent annually up to 6,000 heart attacks, 130,000 asthma attacks, 3,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 4,000-11,000 premature deaths.”
They remain adament that only a global reduction will work, and that even if the convention is signed by many nations next summer in Japan, far more needs to be done.