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Achim Steiner
UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UNEP

How the international community manages its response to both the challenges and the opportunities presented by chemicals and wastes enters a new era this year.

Over the coming months the three principle treaties in the area — the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions — will streamline their operations and actions in new and potentially far-reaching ways. All three will adopt decisions, as part of reform measures, to enhance cooperation and coordination, maximizing their collective impact and so improving human health.

These new governance arrangements will be launched at the Fifth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants in Geneva in late April. They will then be agreed at the Rotterdam Convention in the same city in June and the Basel Convention in October in Cartagena, Colombia.

Among many other key issues to be decided at the Stockholm meeting is whether to list endosulfan — an insecticide, more than half a century old and which is banned in at least 60 countries because of health and other concerns. If it is, it will join a catalogue of some 22 persistent organic pollutants controlled under the treaty.

Meanwhile, endosulfan is being considered under the Rotterdam Convention — along with chrisotile asbestos and some other chemicals — for inclusion in the prior informed consent procedure which requires exporting Parties to obtain the support of importing ones for shipments of chemicals listed in its Annex III.

And if endosulfan is added to the Stockholm Convention, the Basel Convention will be requested to draw up waste management guidelines for it.

The example demonstrates how — unlike the past, where decisions might be taken in a vacuum — a more comprehensive and ‘joined-up’ series of actions relating to chemicals and wastes is beginning to get under way.

All this may seem prosaic to an outsider. But it offers an opportunity to align these important treaties in ways that can produce better chemicals and waste management within and beyond national borders.

Similar evolutions — the result of decisions taken by governments in Bali, Indonesia, last year — include appointing a single head to oversee the running of the three treaties and sharing administrative services — which may free-up funds to be invested in more projects on the ground.

These reforms come little more than a year before governments meet for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to be held two decades after the Rio Earth Summit that has set the contemporary sustainable development course ever since. Its two themes are Green Economy in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development and an Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development.

It has long been clear that the growth of multilateral environmental agreements has, in its current configuration, imposed increasing strains and complexity on the compliance and participation of many developing countries.

At the same time, fragmentation can undermine the effectiveness of the overall effort for sustainable development and lead to duplication and a less than efficient use of scarce financial resources.

The chemicals and wastes agenda also echoes the social outcomes of the Green Economy in terms of prospects for decent employment and improvements in human health and well being, which are key elements in the Safer Planet campaign spearheaded by the three treaties.

During UNEP’s last Governing Council, ministers of environment underlined that the status quo — including the existing management and effectiveness of current institutions — was not an option.

Proposals for reforming international environmental governance are now part of the global discussions in advance of the Rio+20 conference next June.

The closer working relationship between the chemicals and waste agreements, and the fresh directions it will bring, offers a way forward to redressing these shortfalls between ambition and action.

They are part of the overall urgency in accelerating and scaling up a definitive and decisive shift towards achieving a low carbon, resourceefficient global economy for all.

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