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.