Global Mercury Reduction Treaty Finalized


Last week in Geneva, Switzerland, over 140 countries finalized the first global mercury reduction treaty, the Minamata Convention on Mercury. The treaty follows four years of negotiations among national environment ministers.

The Convention is named in honor of Minamata, the Japanese city which suffered severe public health effects from mercury pollution over 50 years ago, and where the diplomatic ceremony and official signing of the treaty will take place in October.

The Minamata Convention commits countries to reducing mercury in two main ways: (1) by phasing out its use in products and (2) by requiring new coal-fired power plants to employ the best available technology to cut mercury emissions. By 2020, manufacturing and trading in “mercury-added” products – like batteries (except ‘button cell’ batteries used in implantable medical devices); switches and relays; certain types of light bulbs; and soaps and cosmetics – will be banned. Other provisions of the treaty include phasing out primary mercury mining and restricting trade on mercury from decommissioning chlor-alkali plants.

Critics such as environmental NGOs have already found fault with the Convention’s lenient approach to existing coal plants and artisanal small-scale gold mining, the two largest global sources of mercury emissions. Under the Convention, countries where artisanal small-scale gold mining is practiced have within three years of the treaty entering into force to implement action plans to reduce mercury use in mining, but the treaty does not provide for an enforcement mechanism. Likewise, decisions on triggering thresholds for existing mercury-emitting facilities have been deferred until the first meeting of the treaty after it comes into force. Negotiators also agreed to funding mechanisms to assist developing countries implement the Convention and support capacity-building and technical assistance.

International Negotiations on Mercury Treaty


International negotiators in Geneva for the fifth and final Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee (“INC 5”) hope to complete a mercury reduction treaty by the end of this week, although officials warn that difficult issues remain to be resolved. Delegates from over 130 countries are expected to establish the first international legal instrument with enforceable limits on mercury emissions.

The negotiators must still determine issues including: the selection of products and processes containing mercury to be phased out; the deadline for such phase-outs; whether to adopt a complete ban on primary mercury mining; and programs for financial assistance, technology transfer, and capacity-building.

A draft text of the treaty provides for regulation of the supply and trade in mercury, as well as its use in products and processes. The draft also addresses how to: reduce mercury emissions from power plants and metal production facilities; safely store and treat waste containing mercury; and identify and evaluate contaminated sites.

A joint proposal submitted by the EU, Japan, and Jamaica would phase out mercury in products like fluorescent lamps, pesticides, and cosmetics by 2018, with a later phase-out of 2020 for batteries and measuring devices. The joint proposal also calls for phasing out mercury in the production of chlor-alkali, polyurethane, and acetaldehyde by 2018 to 2025.

Negotiators are still considering a ban on the export and sale of mercury from countries with primary mercury mining. Delegates have already reached a compromise on the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (“ASGM”), which recently surpassed coal burning as the major source of global mercury emissions. Under the deal, countries could continue to import mercury for ASGM if they develop national action plans to reduce mercury emissions. In addition, the draft treaty permits the continued use of mercury in producing vinyl chloride monomer (“VCM”), an intermediary chemical used in manufacturing PVC plastic.

In the run-up to the conference, UNEP released two reports warning of the growing environmental and health risks of mercury exposure. The reports present estimates and trends of mercury contamination; for example, in the past century, mercury levels have doubled in the top 100 meters of the world’s oceans. UNEP argues that a global reduction treaty would reduce health problems linked to mercury, including neurological and behavioral disorders.