Guest Article #5

A Brief Historical Perspective on International Progress in the Sound Management of Chemicals and Wastes

One of the few advantages of being an old man is the ability to look back over an extended period and take stock of historical developments. (And, occasionally, people mistake one's sleepiness for wisdom!)

When I was fortunate to land on the international scene in the mid-1990s, a number of the initial parts of a chemicals governance framework were in place. These included the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS), the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS), and the ‘Joint Meeting' of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Agencies with chemicals or pesticides programmes were beginning to link up under the auspices of the Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC). And governments had called for an evolution of UNEP's role – of maintaining a global chemical safety database known as the International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals – into a dedicated group now known as UNEP Chemicals, tasked largely with facilitating the development and implementation of policy instruments. This evolution began, of course, with the negotiation of the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, done jointly with FAO, followed by that of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) and most recently the Minamata Convention on Mercury. Those “early days” were guided by Chapter 19 of Agenda 21, and a target to achieve the sound management of chemicals by 2020 was set at the World Summit on Sustainable Development ten years later.

Progress in the past 20 years has been truly remarkable, probably well exceeding the hopes of even the most optimistic of the early players. There are three new conventions – Rotterdam, Stockholm and Minamata – and the international chemicals and waste families have become better integrated, bringing together the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, resulting in a strengthened effort to jointly address global chemicals and waste challenges. There is also SAICM, a non-binding agreement, which serves as an umbrella and helps provide policy focus. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) has also joined the family as financial mechanism for both the Stockholm and Minamata Conventions, and has arranged funding and co-funding for hundreds of chemicals projects totaling over US$4 billion. The GEF is also now engaged, at the request of governments, to fund chemicals and waste projects more broadly to support all of the international agreements, and governments are hard at work developing a second track of financing for national-level activities. The intergovernmental organization (IGO) community has become much stronger, and the World Bank and UN Development Programme (UNDP) have joined the IOMC. And, through the Basel and Stockholm Conventions, there is a vibrant network of regional centres with expertise around the world to support technical assistance, training and project execution and implementation. Perhaps the most significant change is in the area of national-level chemicals scientific and policy expertise. In the mid ‘90s most of this expertise resided in a handful of OECD countries. But today this expertise is strong in all regions, and most of the top experts at conferences of the parties and subsidiary body meetings come from developing countries. Our meetings are replete with skilled and innovative negotiators who move quickly to agree on concrete risk reduction actions and who have also boldly advanced international environmental governance through synergies and the administrative combination of multiple MEA secretariats.

If the global chemicals community is to build upon its history, the next phase will need to be one of increased focus on assistance to developing countries to help them to implement their myriad obligations, binding and otherwise. Some of the powerful tools being developed to support this include:

• A special financing programme that is up for decision at the next meeting of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA). Such a second track of financing could be extremely valuable in supporting the development and strengthening of infrastructures and units at the national level, particularly in least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing States (SIDS);

• Continued strengthening of life-cycle approaches through the increased prominence and application of work under the Basel Convention, in particular building a new regime for the environmentally sound management of wastes, coupled with the approaching entry into force of the Ban Amendment, agreed as part of the Indonesia-Switzerland Country-Led Initiative (CLI); addressing the growing eWaste challenge; and developing and implementing approaches for dealing with wastes containing mercury or POPs;

• Invigorating the network of Basel and Stockholm regional centres as a valuable source of scientific, policy and operational support for developing countries. Such efforts should include, where feasible, support by regional centres to countries that require assistance implementing GEF or other projects;

• Agreeing to compliance mechanisms for the Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, and taking measures to ensure that supporting compliance in all four conventions is a priority for technical assistance and financial support;

• Evaluating whether the newly integrated Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm (BRS) Convention Secretariat is a successful and suitably cost-effective model to be used more broadly. If so, parties to the Minamata Convention may wish to give this due consideration at the first meeting of the Conference of the Parties when they determines secretariat arrangements. If not, the BRS parties should consider possible decisions to improve the BRS Secretariat's effectiveness;

• Recognizing that a number of the problem chemicals and waste streams being addressed under these conventions may require technologically complex solutions available only in a few industrialized countries. Figuring out how to transfer sophisticated technologies, e.g., for eWaste recovery or alternatives to certain POPs, will be key to addressing these issues successfully; and

• Ensuring that the many ways that the sound management of chemicals and wastes contributes to global development issues – such as poverty eradication, agriculture and food safety, access to clean water, and safe employment – are effectively highlighted and acknowledged in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Of course, the future is likely to be a bumpy road, just like the past. There are a number of challenges that will likely persist for the foreseeable future. The world is still slowly coming out of a severe recession, and funding remains limited. Care will need to be taken to ensure that as many of these scarce resources as possible are used to support developing countries, taking care to avoid the enrichment of expensive consultants from industrialized countries. Financial mechanisms, such as GEF, will need to be careful not to view chemicals and wastes as a “zero-sum-game.”

As we have seen with the Minamata Convention, new treaties bring new obligations and, while there may be synergies with existing treaties, the new obligations need new and additional resources. This is particularly important as the Stockholm Convention may be facing a significant financing shortfall, putting many of its POPs elimination targets at risk. And it will continue to be important to review the overall administration and broader governance issues facing the chemicals and waste agenda. For example, are the multiple agencies and secretariats working on intersecting issues doing so consistently, effectively and avoiding duplication, and is the administration of the work done so in the most cost effective way?

The global chemicals and waste agenda has been driven by a creative and dynamic group of talented and dedicated colleagues, and it has been my honor to have been a small part of this group over the past 20+ years.