Guest Article #1

Building an Effective Future-proof International Chemicals and Waste Regime

The international chemicals and waste regime is relatively young and dynamic. It reflects the fact that the use of chemicals in industry, research and our daily lives has rapidly evolved over the last decades. The development of our society would not have been possible without the use of new and new uses of already known substances. Our well-being, prosperity and economic and social development are built on chemicals. However, chemicals also entail known and unknown risks to human health and the environment.

In light of this, several international conventions, protocols and instruments have been negotiated and entered into force over the last decades, each addressing specific challenges and risks posed by chemicals and hazardous wastes (see Table 1 for key milestones).

Despite remaining challenges, this gradual regime building has been incredibly successful: emissions of ozone depleting substances have decreased; exports of hazardous wastes to countries unable to manage them properly have been significantly restrained; certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides can only be exported based on informed consent by the importing country; many persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are being phased out; a global scheme for harmonized classification and labeling of chemicals has been developed; policies for nanotechnologies and manufactured nanomaterials have been developed within the framework of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM); and a comprehensive regime to reduce the use of mercury has been negotiated.

The success of this regime creates a new challenge: the adoption of new regulations, the establishment of new international processes, and the building of new institutions has led to a proliferation of rules, processes and institutions. This risks creating duplication, overlaps, contradictions and inefficiencies in policy development and implementation. Therefore, after the co-location of the secretariats of the Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions with the Basel Convention secretariat in Geneva in 2005, Switzerland called for a further integration of the three conventions. The Government convened an informal meeting in 2006 to present its ideas about synergies in the chemicals and waste regime. The same year, Switzerland, supported by Norway and Senegal, presented at the second Conference of the Parties (COP 2) to the Stockholm Convention a draft decision calling for a joint head of the three convention secretariats. While the proposal for a joint head was not accepted, the Stockholm, Rotterdam and Basel COPs agreed to establish a joint working group to explore enhancing synergies between the three conventions.

This process led to the adoption of a comprehensive package of measures to enhance synergies and cooperation between the three conventions, addressing: enhanced coordination at the national level, programmatic cooperation in the field, and coordinated use of regional centres; the synchronization and streamlining of reporting; the strengthening of cooperation on technical and scientific issues; the development of a common approach to awareness raising and information exchange; the establishment of joint secretariat services; and the possibilities for enhancing coordination on non-compliance. Moreover, the first simultaneous extraordinary COP of the three conventions agreed in 2010 in Bali to establish a joint head of the three secretariats.

This year has marked another important milestone in the process towards a comprehensive, coherent, effective and efficient international chemicals and waste regime: In January 2013, negotiations on a new global mercury convention successfully concluded in Geneva, and the new treaty, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, will be adopted and signed at the diplomatic conference in October 2013 in Japan. This new instrument addresses one of the remaining important gaps in the international chemicals and waste regime. In April/May 2013, the Basel, Stockholm and Rotterdam COPs met in Geneva as ordinary and simultaneous extraordinary COPs.

Convening three independent treaty conferences at the same time was an unprecedented step, not only for the chemicals and waste regime but also for broader international environmental governance. It allowed for a comprehensive perspective on the policy development and implementation of all three conventions and for coherent decision-making on substantive, political, organizational and administrative matters. And, holding the three COPs together ensured better participation by developing countries. Thus, the three COPs not only adopted important decisions dealing with the specifics of each of the conventions – the Stockholm and the Rotterdam Conventions added new substances on the POPs and the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) lists, while the Basel Convention adopted a framework for the environmentally sound management of wastes and several technical regulations – but in addition, the synergies process was further strengthened, coordinated work programmes and budgets for the three conventions were adopted, and interest and readiness to cooperate and coordinate with the Minamata Convention on Mercury was expressed.

The dynamic evolution of the international chemicals and waste regime over the last several years is impressive. The regime has been able to take up new challenges by adding new substances on the PIC and POPs lists, adopting partnerships on e-waste and a framework for environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes, developing policies for nanotechnology, and agreeing on a new legally binding convention for mercury. It also has moved from an ad hoc approach working through independent, uncoordinated processes and instruments towards cooperation, coordination, and synergies. Key to the success of the synergies process was its bottom-up approach.

Important challenges remain. The Minamata Convention needs to be institutionally integrated into the Basel-Rotterdam-Stockholm structure. Financing and compliance are not yet resolved in a satisfactory manner. There is a clear need for further institutional strengthening of national capacity in developing countries, including by supporting chemicals and waste units that are responsible for the coherent implementation of the Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Minamata Conventions. Last but not least, there is a need for an effective international response to unresolved problems, such as those posed by endocrine disruptors and lead and cadmium. In order to address these and new emerging challenges in an effective and efficient manner, the international chemicals and waste regime has to be “future proofed” by further deepening and broadening the synergies process.

Table 1: Important Milestones in the International Chemicals and Waste Regime

Important Milestones in the International Chemicals and Waste Regime

1979

  • UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution with several protocols on specific chemicals, such as the Heavy Metals Protocol (1998) and the POPs Protocol (1998) (regional, 51 parties)

1985

  • Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer (197 parties)

1987

  • Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer (197 parties)

1989

  • Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (180 parties)

1991

  • Bamako Convention on the ban on the Import into Africa and the Control of Transboundary Movement and Management of Hazardous Wastes within Africa (24 parties)

1992

  • United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, Rio Summit): Adoption of Agenda 21 with specific chapters on chemicals and waste management (universal)

1995

  • Basel Ban Amendment (75 ratifications, not yet in force)
  • Waigani Convention to Ban the Importation into Forum Countries of Hazardous and Radioactive Wastes and to Control the Transboundary Movements and Management of Hazardous Wastes within the South Pacific Region (13 parties)

1998

  • Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (153 parties)

2001

  • Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (179 parties)

2002

  • World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD): Adoption of Johannesburg Plan of Action with specific provisions on chemicals, including the “2020 target” that, by 2020, chemicals are used and produced in ways that minimize significant adverse effects on human health and the environment (universal)
  • Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) (implemented by 67 countries)

2006

  • Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (universal)
  • Decisions by the Stockholm, Rotterdam and Basel Convention to establish an Ad Hoc Joint Working group to launch a synergy process

2009

  • Decision of the UNEP Governing Council to launch negotiations on a legally binding instrument on mercury

2010

  • First simultaneous extraordinary COPs of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, decisions to establish a joint head for the three secretariats, joint services and to further enhance cooperation and coordination between the three conventions

2012

  • Rio+20 commitment to an approach that responds in an effective, efficient, coherent and coordinated manner to new and emerging issues in the chemicals and waste area

2013

  • Conclusion of the negotiations and adoption of the Minamata Convention on Mercury
  • First “Super COP” of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Convention with simultaneous extraordinary and separate COPs of each convention.