25 Nov 2019 Speech Chemicals & waste

Speech at the Opening of the Conference of the Parties to the Minamata Convention on Mercury

Photo ©: Minamata Secretariat

David Kapindula, President of the Third Conference of Parties to the Minamata Convention on Mercury

Marc Chardonnens, State Secretary, Federal Office for Environment, Switzerland, Host of the Minamata Secretariat

My friend and colleague, Rossana Silva Repetto, Executive Secretariat, Minamata Convention

Ministers, Ambassadors, distinguished guests, partners, colleagues and friends.

Welcome to Geneva and to the third meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

This multilateral environmental agreement is one of the world’s youngest. It entered into force just over two years ago in response to growing concern over the impact of mercury emissions on human health and the environment. Some of its older siblings – such as the Montreal Protocol, the 31st MOP of which I attended earlier this month – or the BRS Conventions, are longer in the tooth in comparison. But while the Minamata Convention is still fresh-faced, like any youngster it holds massive potential. I am sure it will deliver results just as beneficial to people and nature as Multilateral Environment Agreements that have gone before it.

Progress made so far

With the Minamata Convention, you have already advanced in developing this global tool to respond to mercury pollution. The number of Parties has reached 114, and we at UNEP fully expect this number to grow. You have adopted important documents, guidance and tools on issues such as import consent and emission control technologies. Minamata Initial Assessments have been conducted in 111 countries with the support of UNEP and the Global Environment Facility, and 46 final reports have been submitted. These reports have identified phasing-out mercury-added products and management of mercury waste as the highest priorities in many developing countries. Key achievements under the Convention also include the establishment of a fully-funded financial mechanism – with US$ 210 million allocated to Minamata under the seventh GEF replenishment – and the approval of 15 grants for Parties to support the implementation of the Convention through the Specific International Programme (SIP). In this context, allow me to express my appreciation to the SIP donors for their generosity, and also to mention that as the SIP grows in number of projects under implementation, it will be necessary to review the administrative arrangements to ensure continued effective administrative effectiveness.

What you can do at this COP

This is important work. I congratulate you, and everybody associated with these efforts, for getting so much done so quickly. But we must always keep moving. At this COP you are invited to adopt the final batch of documents, including on the management of contaminated sites and definition of mercury waste. This COP also has a key role to play in establishing the framework for the first evaluation of the effectiveness of the Convention, set for 2023. Strengthening legal frameworks and institutional capacity is also a basic requirement for the implementation of the Convention, and you can make decisions in this area too.

And importantly, this COP will review and consider the operative proposal on a stable framework for the sharing of relevant services between the Secretariat of the Minamata Convention and the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions.

The proposal has been prepared in consultation with the Executive Secretaries of the Minamata Convention and Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Secretariat. In preparing the proposal,  areas of potential synergies as well as the efficient delivery of mandates as decided by the COP was evaluated. The proposal also took into consideration the UN Secretary-General’s reform process, specifically, the call by Member States for the simplification and harmonization of the UN’s business practices enhancing cooperation and integrating programme and operational functions.

Why your work matters

What you decide in the coming days, and what you and your colleagues do when you return to your countries after the meeting, is critical to the well-being of people, animals, ecosystems and economies. Mercury pollution lingers in our environment, cycling between the atmosphere, ocean, and land. It is in the food chain. It causes serious health problems and can threaten the development of unborn and young children. It undercuts the Sustainable Development Goals on good health and well-being, clean water and sanitation, decent work and economic growth, life below water, life on land and many more.

There is no doubt that mercury pollution is a menace. And it is a growing menace. Human activities have increased total atmospheric mercury concentrations by about 450 percent above natural levels. UNEP’s Global Mercury Assessment Report 2018 found that mercury emissions into the atmosphere rose 20 percent between 2010 and 2015, despite additional regulatory actions. The majority of the 2015 emissions occurred in Asia, with increased economic activity bringing industrial activities that use mercury.

So, what specifically can we do, through the Convention and other streams of work, to turn this wax of quicksilver, to use its more poetic name, into a wane?

There are four specific actions we need to take.

Status and actions needed in artisanal and small-scale gold mining

The largest consumer of mercury is the artisanal and small-scale gold mining industry, or AGSM for short. The industry uses mercury to extract gold from ore, a method particularly prevalent in developing countries, where mercury is relatively inexpensive. As many as 15 million people working in this industry are at direct risk. Not only that, most of the mercury used ends up in the environment. The Global Mercury Assessment found that the ASGM sector in 2015 emitted 800 tonnes of mercury to the air, roughly 38 percent of global emissions, and 1,200 tonnes of mercury to land and water.

The Convention requires countries with small-scale gold mining to produce National Action Plans (NAPs) to reduce or eliminate mercury from the sector. UNEP has provided technical assistance and guidance in to 25 countries to develop NAPs. Thus far, one NAP has been submitted. I urge all relevant nations to deliver plans and start helping miners and processors take advantage of the safer technology that is available.

Stemming the mercury trade

To start moving on mercury, we also need to look hard at its trade. We are seeing disruption of the trade due to the provisions of the Convention and efforts by Parties, but we are also facing challenges on illegal and illicit trade. We need strong enforcement. But we have seen elsewhere, illegal trade in banned substances will often continue if enforcement is weak, if systems are corrupt or oversight limited. We therefore also need to reduce supply and demand by offering viable and inexpensive alternatives to mercury.

This is why, in parallel with efforts to reduce the use of mercury in ASGM, the Convention requires countries to encourage alternatives to products that use mercury, dental amalgam, blood-pressure measuring devices, and so on. Here, African countries have submitted a proposal to amend one of the annexes to the Convention and strengthen controls on mercury in dentistry. This COP will discuss this proposal, and other issues related to the use of mercury in products and industrial processes. The good news is that safe and high-functioning alternatives have been developed. And thanks to the Convention, it’s just a matter of time before mercury-free alternatives fully replace their more toxic counterparts.

Coal and climate change

There is another major source of mercury we must tackle. Coal burning, and other forms of fossil fuel and biomass combustion, are responsible for about 24 percent of mercury emissions. UNEP and its Global Mercury Partnership have been addressing this source through technical guidance documents and pilot projects in China, India, Indonesia, Russia, South Africa, Thailand and Viet Nam – involving the analysis of coal’s mercury content, monitoring and training on control technologies. This helps, but the long-term solution here is that we need to phase-out coal from our energy streams to combat climate change. Indeed, the Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, has repeatedly called for the phase-out of coal.

If we move away from coal, we will dramatically reduce mercury emissions and we will positively impact climate change. We badly need to do this. Tomorrow, I will officially launch the latest UNEP Emissions Gap Report, which tells us we are still heading towards a world that is over 3 degrees warmer. Everybody knows what a disaster this would be for the planet in terms of extreme weather events, rising seas and so much more. What few people know is that such a temperature increase also threatens to unlock up to ten times the amount of mercury that humans have released over the last thirty years – currently frozen in the permafrost. We cannot allow this to happen.


In addition, we are letting mercury seep into our soil, water and air via millions of tonnes of electronic waste dumped illegally each year. To stop this source, we have to end this illegal dumping, and transition to a circular economy that recovers materials from these products and safely disposes of the mercury they contain. This, again, will have benefits far beyond the confines of this agreement.

Science-policy interface

These are just four specific action areas. To help make the necessary changes in these areas, the Convention needs to be the best it can be. Parties need to have the capacity to deal with the issues. And they need the best scientific and technical knowledge. Global Mercury Assessments and other scientific publications form the basis of the Convention. Knowledge on the health effects of mercury is critical in addressing pollution. But we need to dig deeper into its impacts, particularly on the environment.

We urgently need to strengthen the science-policy interface at all levels to support and promote science-based action on the sound management of chemicals and waste beyond 2020. One problem is that the geographical coverage of mercury biomonitoring networks globally is limited. Most Asian countries are minimally involved, with the exceptions of Japan and the Republic of Korea. This is a problem given that a lot of the growth in mercury use is happening in Asia. We must implement initiatives such as the Asia Pacific Mercury Monitoring Network, launched by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and Japan’s project to strengthen national capacity and support a region-wide network of mercury monitoring laboratories.

Collaboration and cooperation

But mercury pollution is a global, transboundary issue and needs to be treated as such. So we need to strengthen collaboration and joint action across countries, constituencies and conventions.

And collaboration works. We have the Global Mercury Partnership. We have cooperation between the Arctic Council and UNEP, which resulted in The Global Mercury Assessment 2018. There are many country efforts, including the Andean Observatory on mercury. But we need to do much more.

This COP provides an opportunity to define the role of the Convention as part of the processes of developing post-2020 frameworks for the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) and the post 2020 Framework on Biodiversity, in addition to strengthening collaboration with the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions. A previous UN Environment Assembly resolution invited Parties to the chemical conventions and SAICM to consider ways of promoting a network of regional centres. This would strengthen regional delivery of technical assistance and capacity-building activities. This kind of cooperation is something UNEP is keen to encourage. Linking all of these processes can only strengthen joint actions to deliver on individual mandates and the 2030 Agenda.

The magnitude of the sustainable development challenges requires determined action by all. The 2030 Agenda and the ongoing UN Reform provide excellent avenues to bring the global environment family closer together, while acknowledging the diversity and autonomy of the family members. UNEP is committed to promote cooperation, coherence and synergies with the MEAs, which have a crucial role not only in responding to environmental challenges but preserving human well-being, healthy ecosystems and food security. New thinking and models for action are needed to reverse the current trends. There are increasing calls to address the challenges coherently, reducing fragmentation and working together.

Everyone on the planet is exposed to mercury at some level – whether through the food we eat, the air we breathe, or the cosmetics that we use. Only concerted, united action through this Convention and all of its allies can stop this toxic heavy metal endangering human and environmental health.

I wish you a very productive meeting. I assure you of UNEP’s strong support and will look forward to hearing about the positive outcomes.

Thank you.

Inger Andersen

Executive Director, UN Environment Programme

(Prepared for delivery)