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Agreement on mercury finally here

Foto: Colourbox

Successful interaction between science and policy making.

In Geneva 19 January 2013, due to successful interaction between science and policy making, governments within the UN agreed to a global, legally-binding treaty to prevent emissions and releases of mercury.

Prof. Jozef Pacyna and his team at NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research, have played a major role in providing the UN policy makers with scientific justification for the treaty. 30 year of scientific work followed up by policy makers worldwide has finally come to a conclusion – to the benefit of millions of people around the word.

Here is NILU’s mercury story:

One of the most important tasks of researchers today is to generate knowledge that would justify development of policies dealing with protection of the environment through reduction of emissions and exposure to pollution.

Health effects of Mercury

Mercury is one of the most important pollutants causing adverse impacts on environment and human health. This contaminant is toxic, persistent and can be transported with air masses over the globe so its deposition from the atmosphere may occur far away from its emission sources.

Today, as many as 2000 tons of mercury are emitted to the atmosphere from various human activities worldwide (see illustration). In the environment mercury forms methyl mercury, which is a developmental neurotoxicant resulting in reductions of IQ (Intelligence Quotient), among children. Within the EU, about 1.8 million children are born every year with methyl mercury concentrations above the permissible limit.

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Fig. 1. Geospatially distributed mercury emissions 2005, AMAP/UNEP/Arctic Centre, University of Groningen/NILU/IVL

The successful protection of the environment depends on many factors with efficient interactions between policy makers and researchers being one of them. Policy maker decisions depend on the quality of information that they receive from researchers. On 19 January 2013 governments agreed to reduce emissions of mercury on a global scale. NILU researchers lead by Prof. Jozef Pacyna, the Director of NILU’s Centre for Ecology and Economics, with Dr. Elisabeth Pacyna and Dr. Kyrre Sundseth have played a major role in providing the UN policy makers with the necessary scientific information.

Let the negotiations begin

Jozef Pacyna
Professor Jozef Pacyna, NILU Foto: Ingar Næss

At its session in February 2009, The Governing Council of UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) requested the Executive Director of UNEP to start negotiations and prepare a global legally binding instrument on mercury reductions. In the preparation for this event, in 2007, NILU’s team was requested to coordinate the research needed to provide information on mercury emissions: emissions in the past and at present, mercury emission future scenarios, technological and non-technological measures to reduce emissions now and in the future and the cost benefit analysis for implementation of these measures.

This task was carried out in cooperation with national authorities in many countries with the Norwegian Climate and Pollution Acency (Klif) at the top, as well as research groups in other countries, such as IVL- the Swedish Institute for Environmental Protection, and the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP).

In October 2008, in Nairobi at the UNEP headquarters, and in the front of delegates from more than 150 countries, Prof. Pacyna presented the results of this task. In February 2009 the Governing Council of UNEP made the decision to start negotiations on Hg reduction. Today we celebrate the treaty as a result of these negotiations. The treaty will be open for signature at a special meeting in Japan in October 2013 and will be named as the Minamata Convention after a city in Japan where serious health damage occurred as a result of mercury pollution in the mid-20th Century.

The long and winding road

Although the final work for the Convention took four years (from 2009 to 2013), there is a tremendous amount of work at NILU that has been laid down in the past for this international success. It all started some 30 years ago, where it became clear that mercury contamination was behind poisoning of fishermen in Minamata, of people in Iraq and of people in industrial accidents in other parts of the world. The obvious questions were asked: where does the mercury come from? How much mercury is released to the air, water and land? Where are the regions with highest emissions and then the highest impacts?

Combustion of coal the great villain

In 1988 Prof. Pacyna and Prof. Nriagu from the Canadian Institute for Water Research (at that time) published a first ever global emission inventory of 16 contaminants to air, water and land, including mercury. It became clear that combustion of coal is the largest source of mercury emission worldwide. The results which were published in the renowned scientific magazine Nature, raised a great concern about heavy metals among researchers, policy makers and general public worldwide. Since 1988 the publication has been quoted in more than 2000 research papers (which is a record in Norway regarding citation of articles dealing with environmental protection).

This publication as well as other papers on mercury pollution prepared by Prof. Pacyna’s team in the 1990’s drew the attention of environmental policy makers in Europe, particularly in the context of the UN Convention on Long-range, Transboundary air pollution and its Aarhus Protocol on heavy metal emission reductions. The European emission inventory prepared by Pacyna and Pacyna at NILU formed the basis for negotiations of the Protocol.

Break through

The major breakthrough of NILU’s mercury research came at the beginning of the 2000’s where it became clear that mercury is a global pollutant. Several scientific papers from the NILU team concluded that the majority of mercury emissions originate from combustion of coal in Asia, particularly in China and India. The information was further communicated to the general public through major international newspapers. The interviews clearly helped research results to be heard worldwide. As a consequence, a major concern was further raised among the general public and policy makers in China, as well as in other countries, culminating in an agreement to react against mercury emissions and environmental and human health impacts of these emissions. The voice of scientists was heard!

Today we celebrate the mercury treaty, a success that we, the scientists, the policy makers, and national authorities in many countries have achieved working together. Media have helped this cooperation significantly informing general public on a risk of mercury pollution and a need for action. This is the best example of research application for the benefits of society and for the improvement of human welfare.

Read more at www.unep.org:

Minamata Convention Agreed by Nations http://unep.org/newscentre/Default.aspx?DocumentID=2702&ArticleID=9373&l=en