Author Archives: Amanda Giang

About Amanda Giang

I am a Master’s student in the Technology and Policy Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with an affiliation to the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. My research is focused on integrating atmospheric chemistry and economic modelling to assess the health-related socio-economic impacts of mercury pollution.

How to Regulate Mercury in 6 Easy Steps (Part 4): Institutions and implementation in the Final Treaty

By: Amanda Giang and Philip Wolfe

Many moons ago, before the negotiations began, we set up some key questions about how a treaty actually works in this post. We called these questions the implementation problem: how does a treaty actually get implemented? How do we make sure that countries are actually following its provisions? How do we make sure the provisions are effective? And what does all this mean for the relationship between countries, between treaties, and between different international bodies?

Now that the negotiation is over, we can try to answer these questions for the newly minted Minimata Convention.

1.     How will the convention be implemented in practice?

While the Minimata Convention was adopted last Saturday, it won’t be officially open for signature until October, in Kumamato, Japan. Once a country has signed the convention, they will have to begin the domestic ratification process, which involves putting in place legislation that implements the treaty’s provisions.* When fifty countries have ratified the treaty, it enters into force, which means that it becomes binding by international law.While countries prepare for implementation, they will have option of preparing National Implementation Plans (NIPs). This flexible approach to implementation plans was a compromise between mostly developed countries, who pointed out that NIPs are expensive and burdensome, and mostly developing countries, who were seeking financial and technical support to better understand how to implement the treaty requirements.

* If a country does not sign the convention within a one-year period, but then would like to join, it accedes to the treaty.

2 + 3.     How can the convention ensure compliance and effectiveness? 

During the negotiation, one delegate said, “Reporting is the backbone of compliance,” referring to the importance of transparency and information exchange as a crucial incentive for following through on promises. Provisions for reporting and information sharing did not change drastically between the draft text and the finalized treaty. Reporting related to specific articles, such as supply and trade, products and processes, emissions and releases, waste and storage, and ASGM, are mandatory. Countries are also asked to “facilitate” other information sharing activities, like diffusing economically and technically feasible mercury-free alternatives to products and processes.

As many delegates noted, even if parties are complying to the treaty’s requirements, there is no guarantee that these requirements will translate into the desired objective of the treaty—to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury. If everyone is in compliance, but the objective is not met, the requirements of the treaty may need to be changed. Monitoring and modelling concentrations of mercury in the environment, in biota, and in particularly vulnerable or at-risk human populations is therefore a cornerstone of evaluating effectiveness. The treaty encourages parties to cooperate on these monitoring and modelling activities, but does not mandate it. A serious remaining question then, that may be addressed in the first Conference of Parties, is whether and how much funding will be provided for these activities.

4.  How will this treaty interface with other international agreements and bodies?

The final treaty text deals with relationships to other international agreements and bodies in the preamble. The preamble recognizes that the Minimata Convention does not create a hierarchy between other international agreements, and that treaties and international bodies concerned with environment and health are mutually supportive—particularly the World Health Organization, and the Basel and Rotterdam Conventions. The preamble also makes special mention of the Rio+20 reaffirmation of the Rio Principles, with special emphasis on common but differentiated responsibilities.

During the negotiations, there was a heated debate over whether or not there should be a dedicated article for health aspects. Many countries felt that including such a section—which would focus on identifying, monitoring, providing information to, and treating adversely affected and vulnerable communities—would be out of scope and redundant given the mandate and expertise of the World Health Organization and International Labour Organization. In the end, this article was included in the text to reflect one of the key objectives of the treaty—to protect human health. However, this article recognizes the role of the WHO and ILO and calls for increased cooperation with these bodies. The article also does not require that parties undertake these health-promoting activities for affected and vulnerable populations, or set aside funding for these activities. Instead it asks that parties promote these activities.

5. How will this convention appropriately address individual parties’ conceptions of sovereignty?

These international negotiations can be thought of as a two-level game: each country is simultaneously thinking of the global sphere and its own domestic position. As such, countries are willing to sign on to the treaty if it is somehow in both its self-interest and the interest of the international community. When it came to defining a “mercury compound” in the treaty, a tension developed as countries reached for a definition that would be relevant to curbing deleterious mercury emissions and releases, but would still be broad enough as to not constrict domestic regulators. For instance, if naturally occurring trace amounts of mercury containing compounds occur in the soil of a given country, would the country be required to regulate its own topsoil? If some countries have difficulty ratifying treaties that require prior informed consent of trade, should this treaty not include prior informed consent requirements just so those countries can be party to it even if it leads to a weaker overall treaty? If this convention is able to phase-out all primary mining of mercury, will it set a precedent that could lead to the phase-out of other forms of mining in the future?

While we’ve seen some of these debates resolved, the true test of this question will come as individual parties move to sign and ratify the treaty.

Five things I learned at INC5 (from Amanda)

By: Amanda Giang 

  1. I can single-handedly eat a litre of cheese if it is in fondue form.
  2. Negotiators are acting on behalf of their countries (or regional economic groups), but their success has as much to do with their own personalities as it does with their country’s position. It was really fascinating (not to mention impressive) to see how different individuals used facts, rhetoric, empathy, or in some cases, rapier wit, to broker consensus. To use a phrase coined by Rebecca Saari, I may have developed some “diplomacy crushes” over the course of the week.
  3. Is an environmental treaty ever just an environmental treaty? Issues of environment, health, and trade are so incredibly intertwined. As delegates tried to disentangle these different threads, and to figure out what the scope of an environmental treaty should be, I began to question whether or not our current international governance systems are really able to address the holistic global problems—be they global poverty, hazardous chemicals, biodiversity loss, or climate change—that we’re facing. I think there’s a role for academia to play here—as researchers, we need to better understand and communicate the integrated nature of these problems, and work from an interdisciplinary perspective. Scientists we met at INC5 like Dr. Celia Chen and Dr. David Evers serve as great models for this kind of work.
  4. Should the focus of an international environmental treaty be prevention and mitigation, or should it also address affected communities, and adaptation to existing problems? This is a question that has come up in the debate over climate change, and it also reared its head at the mercury negotiations, particularly in the discussion on a dedicated section on the health aspects of the mercury problem. I thought the final treaty text for this section, which encouraged promotion of activities to identify, treat, and care for affected communities, was a precedent setting first step towards answering this question.
  5. Thanks to Swiss hospitality (which included a fantastic Heidi-themed “Swiss Break”) and some dedicated sleuthing on the part of Phillip Wolfe, I know now that there are over ten film and television productions of Heidi, including an anime series, and a feature length adaptation with dogs playing all the major roles.

Thanks for reading and following us! If I can sneak in a sixth thing I learned, it’s that sharing this experience, and connecting with others involved in science outreach, has been a fantastic one in its own right.


Scientist on the Scene: A Profile of Dr. Celia Chen

Celia Chenby Amanda Giang

We’re certainly not the only science-folk at INC5. Over the course of the week, we’ve had the opportunity to meet many others who are here to support the negotiation in one way or another. Between sessions, I had the chance to catch up with one of them, Dr. Celia Chen, to find out a little more about why she’s here at the negotiations and what advice she has for us aspiring science-policy wonks.

Celia works in the Department of Biology at Dartmouth College, as part of the Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program. The program, which is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), looks at how mercury and arsenic in the environment affect ecosystem and human health. Within the program, she spends her time “wearing two different hats,” she says, one as a traditional eco-toxicologist and principal investigator for a project on the fate of metals in aquatic food webs, and a second as the principal investigator of research translation. “Translation is part of the mandate NIEHS gives for Superfund research,” Celia explains. Not only are researchers within these programs expected to clarify the science of contamination, but they’re also expected to make sure that their findings are communicated—or translated—to stakeholders (i.e., the people who can use or are directly affected by the findings), be they regulators from the EPA and FDA, or local food cooperatives.

She sees this research translation as a crucial role that scientists must play in policy-making forums. “We need to take what we know about the science and put it in a language that is accessible to policy makers,” she argues. Too often, critical scientific knowledge remains locked up in scientific publications, which, while they are the bread-and-butter of professional research, don’t always penetrate into policy circles. Celia feels that it is the responsibility of scientists to put their work in a form that resonates with—and is useful to—those in decision-making positions, from consumers making choices about their personal fish consumption, to negotiators working at an international scale. In fact, that’s why she’s attending the mercury negotiations. In 2010, the Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program created the Coastal and Marine Mercury Ecosystem Research Collaborative (C-MERC) to synthesize current knowledge on the environmental health impacts of mercury in a policy relevant way. Celia is attending INC5 to share the results of this project: the Sources to Seafood report.

“We tried to ask stakeholders first what they needed to know,” describes Celia. “The timing of [the Sources to Seafood report] was on purpose.”

Sources to Seafood was published on the tail of a domestic regulation in the US for mercury from coal-fired power plants, and directly before the final negotiating session for a global treaty on mercury. A key question that policy makers for both domestic and international regulation want clarified is how controlling different sources of mercury emissions and releases will actually affect human exposure. This question is important for both designing new policy and evaluating existing ones.

“When we began this work, most of the research done on mercury in the environment was done in freshwater systems, not marine. But most people are exposed to methylmercury through marine seafood,” Chen says. The report estimates that, for most of the US population, 85% of methylmercury exposure comes from marine fish. What are the sources of mercury that affect different marine and estuarine—that is, ocean and coastal—systems, from which fish are harvested? How do these sources affect human exposure? Researchers in biogeochemistry, food web dynamics, and health were all trying to answer different parts of these questions, but these different threads weren’t being woven together into a comprehensive picture.

“The most novel part of [the Sources to Seafood report],” Celia argues, is its interdisciplinary and cross-scale approach. “There are still many gaps and not enough data,” she says, but by synthesizing many different studies from different fields, a few conclusions can be drawn.

The most important point from the Sources to Seafood report that needs to be conveyed to decision-makers, Celia highlights, is that for each ocean system, critical sources of mercury may be different—some systems are most affected by atmospheric deposition, while others are most affected by inputs from rivers. Will the draft text on emissions and releases reflect these nuances? Celia hopes that reports like Sources to Seafood might help ensure that it does.

As for students interested in marine science-policy, Celia recommends that they consider the Sea Grant Knauss Fellowships, which match students with “host” policy makers in the executive and legislative branches of the US government in Washington D.C. These fellowships are open to any student, regardless of citizenship, enrolled in a graduate program at a US university that has a Sea Grant program.

For those interested in how the final treaty shapes up, keep following developments here on our blog and via twitter @amandagiang and @MITmercury.

What to Expect from INC5 Day 5 – Thursday, January 17

By: Amanda Giang

The agenda for Day 5.

The agenda for Day 5.

It’s Day 5 of the negotiations, and the atmosphere is getting tense. Chair Lugris is pushing for some serious progress, and is expecting contact groups to produce some text by the end of day, so that tomorrow can be devoted to fine-tuning. We’re not even going to have a swiss break! We expect that plenary will be suspended early while contact groups tackle the following:


  • A financial mechanism for the convention. The Chair has delayed this important discussion until now, but it’s time to finally iron out exactly how the activities described in the draft treaty are going to be paid for. Looking to be a late night for @alicealpert and @jvanderhoop, who will be covering this issue.
  • Linkages between this treaty and others, and how implementation and compliance will be operationalized, covered by @wolfeyp and @amandagiang.
  • Text for how to address health in the treaty, also covered by @amandagiang and @wolfepy.
  • Finalization of technical issues, like ASGM, supply and trade of mercury (including primary mining), followed by @markdstaples and @DanyaRumore.
  • Dental amalgam—which is a particularly contentious section of the text on mercury products and processes, covered by @Bea_Edwards and @lncz.
  • Draft text for emissions and releases, with fleshing out of Annexes specifying sources and limits, followed by @NoelleSelin, @BeckySaari and @leahstokes
  • If we’re lucky, pizza! We hear our generous Swiss hosts provided some late night study negotiation snacks yesterday. As graduate students, we know nothing fuels brainpower like greasy cheese and carbs.

Don’t forget to follow @MITmercury and #MITmercury to follow the action real-time!

Benefit estimates and other health effects from mercury

By: Amanda Giang

When I’m not in glamorous Geneva, and instead in my much-less-glamorous cubicle in Cambridge, MA, I work on assessing the benefits of reducing mercury emissions. The bulk of these benefits are related to improved health—reviewed in our earlier post. Discussion on the health impacts of mercury normally focus on neurologic effects—and with good reason. These effects often have devastating impacts on the lives of victims, and heavy social and economic costs—even when we’re talking about subtle IQ loss from fetal exposure to methylmercury.

What’s more, we have a large body of scientific evidence that helps us understand these neurologic effects, and that can help guide policy decisions about preventing them. But, focusing on just neurologic effects may not tell the whole story. There may be other—though considerably more uncertain—health effects from mercury exposure that have serious policy implications. A large part of my research is about how to include these uncertain health effects in estimating benefits from reduced mercury emissions.

Of these uncertain effects, cardiovascular impacts may be the most important, and also the least uncertain. A growing body of evidence suggests that there may be a causal relationship between methylmercury and cardiovascular disease (coronary heart disease, heart attacks, increased blood pressure). Scientists still aren’t sure why mercury might promote heart attacks; one hypothesis is that it causes oxidative damage.

A committee convened by the US EPA recently decided that there was enough evidence, at least for heart attacks, to warrant including this health effect in future benefit assessments for mercury regulation.* Taking into account mercury-related heart attacks is important because the “cost” of a heart attack—personal, social, and economic—is very high; particularly if a heart attack leads to a fatality. In one of the first studies to include heart attacks in its calculations of costs and benefits, 80% of the benefits associated with reduced mercury exposure ($8.6 billion/year in the US) were due to reduced heart attacks.

If, through further research, it turns out there is a causal relationship between mercury and heart disease, then this week’s mercury treaty might be even more socially beneficial than countries initially thought. This was the case when the US regulated sulfur dioxide in the 1990s. Originally, the focus during the policy’s development was on environmental benefits from reduced acid rain. However, it later emerged that reducing sulfur dioxide has huge health benefits (an unexpected $70 billion/year!). As the science develops, we’ll see whether this will play out for mercury as well.

* NOTE: In the US, part of the regulation making process involves assessing the costs and benefits of regulation.

Global Environmental Governance – Where Does Mercury Fit?

by Amanda Giang

The world of global environmental agreements is starting to fill up. Over the past 50 years, the international community has come together to put in place 500 treaties over 1100 treaties—or multi-lateral environmental agreements (MEAs) in policy-wonk speak—that address the atmosphere, oceans and water, land, chemicals, hazardous substances and waste, and biodiversity.  (Whether they’ve been effective is another question.)

So where will the mercury treaty fit amongst its MEA brethren? What gaps does it fill, and how does it link with other treaties?

Standing alone

In a previous post, Philip Wolfe and I described why mercury requires an international treaty in the first place—it’s a global threat that doesn’t follow geopolitical borders, and therefore addressing it requires international cooperation. But what form should this treaty take? Some of the best known MEAs, like those that address climate change and ozone depleting substances, follow a convention-protocol structure. These agreements start with a framework convention, which basically says, “We think this is a global issue and want to address it,” and are then followed by protocols, which outline how lofty policy goals might actually be achieved through practical steps (e.g., the Kyoto protocol set up targets and timetables for carbon dioxide emissions reductions). The framework convention serves as an umbrella, and guides all the protocols that sit below it. In contrast, the mercury treaty is going to be freestanding. Because it does not sit under a guiding framework, there is not necessarily anything that dictates how it should relate to other MEAs. Since the relationship between individual MEAs is independent and non-hierarchical, no treaty supersedes another. So how should issue overlaps be managed?

This question is particularly important for the mercury treaty and how it relates to the existing set of treaties that address hazardous chemicals (or the chemicals regime, if you want to be fancy) because many chemical regime treaties are “issue-centric”, whereas the mercury treaty will be “chemical-centric”. For example, the chemicals regime includes: the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (which regulates hazardous waste) and the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (which regulates the trade of hazardous substances). How will mercury-specific waste provisions fit with those set out in the Basel Convention? To what extent can the existing machinery of these other treaties (like research centres on hazardous waste) be used for mercury-specific issues? What happens if there are countries that will be party to the mercury treaty, but are not party to the Basel Convention (for instance the US)? Similar questions apply for trade. These are some key institutional issues that will have to be resolved this week during negotiation.

Cross-cutting themes and policy legacy

As Philip and I mentioned in a previous post, with every MEA, there is the potential for policy legacy. Any decision you make about an issue that cuts across multiple regulatory regimes may set a (dangerous?) precedent, so delegates tend to tread lightly when it comes to the following issues:

  • Common but differentiated responsibilities: All parties may be willing to contribute to solving the mercury problem, but not all parties are equally responsible for causing it, nor are they equally able to address it (in terms of financial and technical resources). How should the responsibilities be divided? The Kyoto Protocol under the Framework Convention for Climate Change established one way to think about this—with Annex I countries (mostly industrialized) subject to targets and timetables, and other countries not—but there are many critics to this approach. Will the mercury treaty take a different slice at emissions reduction?
  • Financial and technical assistance: Check out this post for a detailed discussion on this issue.

As the week progresses, we’ll report on how some of these institutional linkages and cross-cutting issues solidify in the treaty text. In the meantime, if you’re just dying to learn more about the exciting world of environmental governance, check out this book: Global Governance of Hazardous Chemicals: Challenges of Multilevel Management by Henrik Selin (MIT Press, 2010).


How to Regulate Mercury in 6 Easy Steps (Part 2 of 4): A practical approach to implementation in practice

by Philip Wolfe and Amanda Giang

Philip and Amanda here with a handy guide for implementing a global treaty on mercury. In Part 1, we gave a brief walk through the overall process of developing a global mercury policy. In Part 2, we look at what issues are important when it comes to deciding how to implement a global regulation.

It is all well and good to acknowledge that mercury poses a problem, but it is another thing entirely to actually do something about it. Even if we can get everyone to agree about what the most important threats to health and safety are, we still have to work out how exactly we are going to address these threats, and how we are going to make sure that people follow through. Furthermore, we have set all of this up in a way that is feasible for everyone.  We referred to this issue in Part 1 as the “implementation problem” (it sounds like an old-timey euphemism, we know, but it is helpful way of framing the issue).

The “implementation problem” is complex, but thankfully it is not intractable! We think that one nice way to approach it is by breaking up these interlocking issues into five overarching questions.

1. How will the convention be implemented in practice?

This question addresses all of the procedural details. Who oversees what? Who is in charge of funds? Who gets to vote? When does the treaty enter into force (i.e., how many countries need to ratify the treaty domestically before implementation starts)? A lot of these issues may seem pretty inconsequential (or bureaucratically, mind-numbingly boring, to put it mildly), but don’t be fooled! It’s not as easy as simply setting dates and boilerplate international policy cutting-and-pasting. For one, we need to be concerned about policy legacy. When parties make choices in one environmental regulation, it can set a precedent for future regulations with large consequences; likewise, we have to look at whether policy-makers are making smart choices here or if they are just doing something because it worked before. This question can also have important political and equity implications, especially when it comes to distributing oversight and funding responsibilities.

2. How can the convention ensure effectiveness?

The world doesn’t just make treaties as an excuse for a bunch of important people to practice their signatures. The goal is to solve a global problem, and to do it as effectively as possible. Trouble is, there’s often a tradeoff between feasibility and effectiveness. Make a regulation too stringent, and it becomes impossible. Make it too lenient, and suddenly you have spent a lot of time making a policy that does not adequately address the environmental problems at hand. Effectiveness is about balancing these needs both for individual parties and for the global community as a whole.

As science policy enthusiasts, we’re also particularly interested in how one actually goes about monitoring and measuring effectiveness, and how science can inform decisions about these activities. What do the indicators specified in the treaty actually tell us about the state of the environmental problem at hand, and are they scientifically justified?

3. How can the convention ensure compliance?

Imagine this: The nation of Theoreticalistan produces a lot of mercury emissions through its widget-making industry. All of the other countries of the world bear the burden of these emissions. The world would see benefits of $100 million if Theoreticalistan invested in clean-widget technology. However, Theoreticalistan is a developing nation and does not have the infrastructure to develop this technology, which would cost $50 million. If the world could support Theoreticalistan through capacity building and technology transfer, everyone could end up better off! Theoreticalistan gets an improved industry (funded at least in part by outside support) and the world sees the benefits in mercury reduction ($100 million benefit – $50 million cost of development = $50 million net benefit). However, how does the world make sure Theoreticalistan keeps up its end of the bargain? And how can Theoreticalistan be sure it will get appropriate support? As with effectiveness, it will take monitoring, inventorying, and evaluating progress at each step of the way to achieve this. How we embed these systems into the convention is an important factor in the treaty’s ultimate success. If you’re interested in this topic, there’s a growing body of literature that talks about compliance systems and active compliance management: check out Antonia Chayes et al.’s (1995) “Active Compliance Management in Environmental Treaties” and Peter Sand’s (2001) “A Century of Green Lessons: the contribution of nature conservation regimes to global governance.

4. How will this treaty interface with other international agreements and bodies?

Countries are already a part of complex inter-woven fabric of bilateral and international agreements, and that space is getting more crowded and more confusing every year. Any mercury convention will have to interface with these existing regulations and institutions. The key tension is how to define an agreement space that encompasses as much of the problem as possible while not violating or stepping on the toes of other agreements. Some of these agreements may be directly related to hazardous substances and pollutants, or they could be broadly related to economics and trade. Here are just a few treaties and intergovernmental bodies that we expect to be relevant to the mercury convention:

For more info on these linkages, watch for Amanda’s forthcoming blog post “Global environmental governance – where does mercury fit?”

5. How will this convention appropriately address individual parties’ conceptions of sovereignty?

Different countries will have different domestic laws. While it may be feasible for the United States to pass a law that says “All widget-making must be mercury free,” it may not be possible for the government of, say, Theoreticalistan to do the same. Likewise, individual countries, especially those with significant economic or military power, may be loath to give up that power to an international body. The sovereignty issue has received national attention in the United States recently when the Senate failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities after Senate Republicans claimed that such a convention would impinge on our sovereignty. A good primer on different sides can be found at the New York Times Room for Debate.

Still with us? Maybe? A little bit? Don’t lose hope. It’s a tough road from problem to treaty, and there are myriad difficulties and quagmires to wade through along the way. But if you’ve made it through Parts 1 and 2, you’re pretty much an expert already. In Part 3 we’re going to introduce and define some of the biggest concepts and themes we expect to come up during the negotiations in Geneva.

Stay tuned!

Amanda Giang studies how we quantify the benefits of environmental policies in the face of uncertainty. She is terrified of Legos. Philip Wolfe studies how people make policy decisions in one environmental domain (like air quality) when there are tradeoffs in another domain (like noise pollution). His spirit animal is the puffin.