Author Archives: Ellen Czaika

Ellen Czaika

About Ellen Czaika

I am a PhD candidate in the Engineering Systems Division at MIT. My research investigates how models are used in sustainability negotiations. I am curious about the similarities between design thinking and consensus building. I assist in teaching a leadership course on how to make organizational changes that increase social, environmental, and economic sustainability.

Its own time zone: A reflection on INC5 (from Ellen)

The Mercury Negotiation at the United Nations in Geneva existed in its own time zone. At first I thought it was jet lag, but the Centre Internationale de Conferences Geneve (CICG), which housed the convention, must be in its own time zone; there are few other explanations.

Never before had I seen a meeting be scheduled to start at 1:30am. It started at 2:30, as if the delegates had tacitly agreed upon a daylight-savings-like clock change. I thought my watch must be wrong.

But, my watch is Swiss made. I bought it 17 years ago in Lucerne, Switzerland. I’ve only had to change the battery once. It is a simple, reliable time keeping device, or so I thought. My Swiss watch does not work at the mercury negotiations at the UN’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.  The irony.

I didn’t immediately come to this conclusion, however. The problems with my watch developed slowly.  I didn’t notice anything wrong with it during the first Plenary session on the first day. Perhaps that was because I was fascinated by the simultaneous interpretation into 6 languages and by testing my French and Spanish, before returning to my native English (channel 1 on the headsets).  Or, maybe my attention was occupied in trying to match the delegates faces with their voices, or even harder – to their tone as conveyed by an interpreter’s voice.

UntitledThe first Plenary was exciting to me because it was my first Plenary at an international negotiation. However, I quickly picked up on the pattern. Every delegate commenced his/her remarks with compliments to the Swiss’ hospitality, intentions to work with the other delegates to reach an agreement, and niceties to Chair Fernando Lugris. It was only towards the end of their moment on the floor that they spoke their country’s position. My watch worked fine.

It was during the first evening’s session of the contact group on selected technical articles that I started noticing the first signs of trouble with my watch.  They worked until 11pm.  I don’t mean they worked late, grad student style: lounging in chairs in comfy clothes, a laptop apiece. They remained in business attire in a facilitated meeting, with the co-chair allocating speaking time. I couldn’t believe they were still so formal so late at night.

The next morning, I thought my watch was outright lying. It couldn’t be time to get up already. My teammate, Bethanie and I hustled through breakfast to get to the CICG for the contact group’s morning session only to find the break out room empty.

From there my watch just got worse.  One night, though I can’t remember which one because my calendar stopped working too as the days all blended together with only a few hours sleep in between, the contact group co-chair announced a five minute break. Forty-five minutes later, by my watch, the delegates weren’t back in the conference room. Does one CICG minute equal 9 minutes on my watch?

But a pattern was emerging. The, now nightly, “five-minute breaks” coincided with the closing of the conference center’s café. Furthermore, the contact group adjourned reliably close to the start of each of the Swiss Breaks, with their wonderful offerings of cultural food and drinks.  And, my body clock was operating in a time zone somewhere over the Atlantic.

When the contact group reconvened after a coffee break or a Swiss break, the text in Articles and Annexes was different or the group would easily agree to text that had been contentious before the break. What was happening during these breaks?

Unfortunately, as observers, we weren’t privy to these informal discussions. However, the co-chairs referred to meetings with delegates and talking ideas around. Pairing this with the small working groups they’d send out to address particular technical issues like the threshold of mercury allowable in different kinds of lightbulbs, and my watch’s time warp became productive.

It’s not that time was nonexistent in the CICG. Chair Lugris and the co-chairs of the contact group on selected technical articles frequently reminded the delegates of the ticking clock.  The message in the Plenary was humorous and musical as Chair Lugris took to ending each plenary session with Queen’s “Under Pressure.”

These reminders became more effective as the final day approached. Delegates started including some variation of the comments, “in the interest of flexibility” or “to keep things moving along” in their remarks.

Somewhere out in the edges of the INC5 time warp an agreement was forming. Was the shared sleeplessness and Swiss cheese and chocolate creating a cohesion among these delegates from roughly 140 countries? Was the emerging agreement something they can bring back to a supportive reception in their home countries? In some of the delegates’ remarks, this two-level game was very evident. Delegates were constantly balancing their commitments to their home country’s interests with the pressure to reach agreement at INC5.

The text was formally adopted at around 7am on the final day of the INC5 convention, which was not the early start it sounds, but rather a late finish. Sleep-deprived but excited delegates expressed their congratulations and gratitude to each other and their hope for the treaty. As the blur of INC5 receded into the new reality of text to be brought to home countries, the treaty signed, and then ratified, the sense of accomplishment was palpable. Although not everyone was happy with the result, most particularly the representatives of the Minamata Victims felt the treaty was not strong enough as the IPEN NGO expressed through a poignant speech.

Somewhere during the adopting of each article and annex in turn, my watch started working again. During the celebratory party my watch clearly told me that 8am is too early for cake and Champagne and that I needed sleep.

By the time I stood at the Geneva train station the next morning, my watch said the same time as the beautiful Mondaine station clock, and exactly coincided with the trains’ arrival. I had left the INC5 time zone.Untitled

Daily Roundup for INC5 Day 5—Thursday, January 18

By: Ellen Czaika

In the plenary evening session, the chair solicited updates from each of the contact groups. The co-chairs reported some progress, although all of them requested further time to continue with the text. Around 7pm, Chair Lugris gave a deadline of 11pm, at which time he scheduled another plenary. At the request of a delegate, he accepted responsibility for compiling a draft text for the preamble.

Global Environmental Facility (GEF) CEO & Chairperson Dr. Naoko Ishii spoke about the willingness of the GEF to work with the resulting convention on mercury. She indicated that the GEF’s average time to approve a mercury related project is 34 days. She also indicated the GEF’s interest in engaging with the private sector in the form of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), which she indicated goes along with the already strong public sector involvement in mercury issues.

Her remarks may ease the concerns of some delegates who fear that funding and assistance may be difficult to receive in practice. However, funding remains a debated issue, and the financial resources and technical assistance contact group met yesterday after her presentation to articulate broad ideas about the fund for implementing the convention. After more than 3 hours of open discussion, the co-chairs redrafted the Article. When the full contact group reconvened to evaluate the co-chairs’ text, a general consensus was reached that the funding mechanism should be the GEF, plus additional existing institutions.

However, several parties, including the US and Canada, expressed disappointment that their positions were not reflected in the text, and proposed significant new elements. Additionally, Brazil suggested adding text indicating that funds used for mercury treaty implementation should come from new GEF contributions. This will be untenable to the parties contributing to the GEF, and is being worked out by a select drafting group. Their draft text should be presented to the plenary soon.

In the contract group on selected technical articles, progress is being made, but discussion about Annex D, related to processes containing mercury, and Article 3 on Supply and Trade continued late into the night (or rather, into the early morning). The other articles from the contact group have been given to the legal group for a quick read-through before being presented for approval in today’s plenary.

The financial and technical assistance contact group sent their text to a working group and dissolved the contact group around 11pm. The emission and releases contact group, on the other hand, continued past midnight. Progress was made on the emissions issue, and the group applauded as their Annex F was deemed ready for release (their enthusiasm for progress may have been due to their all nighter the night before). The phrase “in the spirit of cooperation” became a common refrain as the emissions and releases contact group tackled the many brackets left in the article on releases to land and water.

The institutions and implementation group sent a clean text on health aspects to the legal group. This text is precedent-setting, because it specifically recognizes health in an environmental treaty in more than a preventive capacity, and calls for the promotion of activities like identifying vulnerable and affected populations, improving access to treatment, etc. Furthermore, it clarifies the treaty’s linkages to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

In the 11pm plenary, the co-chairs for the contact groups reported on their progress. Chair Lugris  extended the deadline for text until noon today, day 6,  to accommodate the remaining work in the groups.

Working groups are currently presenting on their progress in the plenary session. Follow the discussion via our updates on twitter @MITmercury!

Products and Processes: An Explanation of Positive and Negative Lists

One of the main issues on the table during the mercury negotiations leading up to INC5 has been how to deal with products and processes containing mercury. In particular, the question of whether to adopt a “negative list” or a “positive list” approach was heavily debated.

So what’s the difference?

  • A negative list approach would mean a ban on mercury use in all products and processes, with the exception of a few agreed upon and listed uses. To remember this, think n = “no mercury use is allowed (possibly with exceptions).”
  • A positive list approach would only ban mercury use in products and process that are explicitly agreed upon and listed. Think p = “list of prohibited products and processes”

The mercury treaty negotiations have separated products and processes into two different annexes: Annex C and Annex D. For Annex C, which addresses mercury-added products, INC5’s contact group on selected technical articles proposes to use what is being called a “hybrid list” approach: basically, 1) they have listed the products that are banned (i.e., a positive list), and all other mercury-containing products are allowed, but 2) products that are in the banned list are allowed when used for certain, very specific uses (such as civilian protection or military uses).

Annex D, which addresses manufacturing processes in which mercury or mercury compounds are used, currently takes a positive list approach: only the processes that are listed are banned, all others are allowed.

While these Annexes currently appear to be settled, a lot can happen in the last hours of the treaty negotiations, and it remains to be seen how exactly products and processes will be regulated by the treaty.

Watch our blog and track us on twitter @lncz and @MITmercury to see how the produces and processes part of the treaty comes together!

History Of Mercury Use in Products and Processes

By Ellen Czaika and Bethanie Edwards

In preparing this blog post, we used information from Brooks’s 2012 chapter in Mercury in the Environment and Nriagu’s 1979 The Biogeochemistry of Mercury in the Environment, unless otherwise noted.

As with most elements, there is a fixed amount of mercury on the planet. This mercury cycles through the deep earth, the atmosphere, the terrestrial reservoir, and various water bodies on timescales that vary from less than a year to tens of thousands of years. Toxicity aside, mercury has many chemical properties that make it useful to humans. Thus, there is evidence that mercury has been utilized throughout antiquity. A human skeleton dating from 5000BCE was found covered in vermillion, also known as cinnabar (HgS). Another historic example of mercury use was found in a 15th century BCE Egyptian tomb ceremonial cup.

Humans have been mining mercury ore from the deep earth (the “lithosphere”) since at least the Roman times. The Romans operated a mercury mine in Spain with prisoner and slave labor. They used mercury as a pigment in their paint; mercury-containing paint has been found in Roman homes buried by the volcanic ash of Mount Vesuvius in 79CE. The use of mercury in paint has continued into the modern area, although in recent history, mercury was added as a fungicide rather than for its chromatic properties. It wasn’t until 1991 that the use of mercury in paint was phased out in the US.

Aristotle is credited with the oldest known written record of mercury (in an academic text dating back to sometime during the 4th century BCE), in which he referred to it as “fluid silver” and “quicksilver.” This academic text conveyed what alchemists of his day believed: that mercury was the component in all metals that gave them their “metal-ness.” At that time, it was used in ceremonies and to treat skin disorders. In India and China, it was used as an aphrodisiac and for medical therapy circa 500 BCE. Chinese woman are reported to have consumed mercury as a contraceptive 4,000 years ago. Cinnabar is still used as a sedative in traditional Chinese medicine.

By 1000 CE, mercury was used to extract gold by amalgamation. The mercury surrounds the gold, forming shiny pellets that workers then burn. The mercury evaporates, leaving the purified gold. This process is still practiced by artisanal small-scale gold mining operations today, exposing over 10 million of workers to the toxic element and releasing between 650-1000 tonnes of mercury per year into the environment.

Mercury was used in scientific research largely as a result of Torricelli’s 1643 invention of the barometer and Fahrenheit’s 1720 invention of the mercury thermometer. While thermometers in the health care sector are no longer made with mercury, China still produces several measurement devices, such as blood-pressure meters, that contain mercury.

During the Industrial Revolution, various inventions increased the demand for mercury. In 1799, mercury fulminate was first used as a detonator for explosives. In 1835, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) was first produced, the original synthesis of which relied on mercury as a catalyst. In 1891, Thomas Edison’s incandescent lamp contained mercury (to this day compact fluorescent light bulbs have mercury added to them.) In 1894, H.Y. Castner discovered that mercury could be used in the chlor-alkali process to produce chlorine and caustic soda. And during WWII, the Ruben-Mallory battery (mercury dry-cell battery) was invented and widely used.

By the early 1900s, the main uses of mercury were in making scientific equipment, recovering gold and silver, manufacturing fulminate and vermilion, and felt-making.  Of note, individuals who made felt hats displayed signs of dementia as a result of mercury poisoning. These “Mad Hatters” were referred to by Lewis Carroll in his book Alice in Wonderland.

By the 1960s, the production of electrical apparati, caustic soda, and chlorine accounted for over 50% of mercury uses. Caustic soda is largely associated with the paper industry; it is used to achieve whiter paper. With the exception of manufactures in China, chlor-alkali production has now shifted to a non-mercury method. However, the chlor-alkali industry still accounts for 1% of total mercury emissions to the atmosphere and potentially a much larger contribution to water and land releases.

Before 1850, the world’s supply of usable mercury was extracted from three mines located in Almaden, Spain (dating back to the Romans times); Idria, Slovenia; and Santa Barbara, Peru (which the Spanish controlled during colonial times). Between 1850 and the 1960’s, the Santa Barbara mine ceased production and mercury mining began in two other regions: in Monte Amiata, Italy, and throughout California in the United States.  The latter coincided with the Gold Rush. Since 1960, other mines have opened in the Soviet block countries, China, Kazakhstan, Algeria, Mexico, and the US state of Nevada. Despite the opening of new mines in recent decades, a report from the EU predicts that recycling of mercury from products and by-products could help meet the mercury demand and further reduce direct mining of mercury.

The historical use of mercury has set the stage for many of the modern products and processes that utilize mercury. It is estimated that, over the last 4000 years, historical and continued use of mercury have released 350,000 tonnes of mercury from the depths of the earth into air, surface land, and water, where it’s toxicity becomes problematic for human health and Earth’s sensitive biosphere.

Humans have been using mercury for various uses for much of history. These uses prompt mining and other ways of making mercury available. Given its long persistence and dangers to health and the environment, it is essential we figure out how to reduce mercury uses and anthropogenic releases.  Because mercury is a trans-boundary traveller, coordination and negotiation at the international level are essential.

An Overview of Undecided Issues at the INC5 Mercury Treaty Negotiations

by Ellen Czaika

INC5, the International Negotiating Committee on Mercury’s 5th and final meeting in Geneva, started yesterday and continues through January 18 or 19 (depending on how long it takes to reach agreement). The discussions are working off of a draft treaty text compiled by the Chair based on the INC4 talks in Uruguay last July.

Several specifics of the treaty have yet to be agreed upon. Let’s look at an overview of what is on the table this week (see our Issue Overview blogs for more details on each of these topics).

Organizational and Implementation Issues

The exact wording of the preamble has yet to be agreed upon. It sets the tone and context of the convention text. Furthermore, the implementation strength of the document is still being debated. This manifests itself partly as a debate over the use of the seemingly similar but yet importantly distinct verbs: “are able to,” “may,” and “shall.” Also relevant to the implementation strength of the treaty, the amount and type of financial and technical assistance to be associated with the agreement is far from settled.

The level of trade transparency is also in question. This issue relates to the amount of insight nations give into their mercury trade and raises questions about monitoring and data reporting.

Another discussion to be made is whether to use the words, “implementation,” “compliance,” or “implementation and compliance.” Use of the word compliance implies the creation of an oversight body that monitors nations’ mercury mining, emissions, trade, disposal, and use. “Implementation,” when used alone, leaves nations responsible for their own assessment of adherence to the treaty’s regulations.

This discussion about “implementation” and “compliance” relates to national sovereignty. Each nation wants its sovereignty respected, but in order to protect its citizens from mercury, it needs other nations to reduce emissions and releases too. If mercury did not move around the globe, a more individualized approach could make sense. However, mercury released in one area affects people worldwide.

Furthermore, the negotiating parties have yet to agree on some procedural and timeline details, such as when the treaty will enter into force (i.e., become live) and whether there will be withdrawal periods.

Additionally and importantly, the parties have yet to agree on how to discuss health aspects within the treaty. This includes whether and how to regulate dental amalgams.

Emissions and Releases Issues

One of the items the Parties will be discussing is how to reduce human-caused mercury releases. They will discuss four main topics related to releases and emissions: sources, thresholds, control objective, and flexibility.

The sources can be categorized by time (existing versus future sources), by industry (chemical production, mining, energy production, product production, waste disposal, etc.), by geography (where in the world the release happens), and by economic or other necessity, among other categories. Should we control all categories of sources? If not all, which ones will be controlled? Should we allow some exceptions for industries that provide irreplaceable employment for impoverished peoples? (If you have thoughts about this, comment below!)

To be effective, thresholds need to be precise and emissions need to be measured to ascertain whether they meet the thresholds. There is debate about whether or not to set thresholds. If thresholds are set, expect long discussions about what those numbers will be. The range of proposed limits on flue gas emissions is 0.01 to 0.2 mg/m3 (for more about this, see our Emissions and Releases Overview blog)

Discussion around the control objective includes the proposing of emission limits, setting reduction goals, relying on best available technology/practices, or wrapping mercury control in with the control of other pollutants (such as others that are released when coal is burned).

The flexibility of the agreement is also in discussion. That is, should nations be in charge of their targets and limits or should there be UN oversight of direct, global targets and limits.

Products and Processes Issues

The draft text has adopted a positive list approach, which means that only the mercury-containing products and processes listed have to be regulated (watch for my upcoming blog on the differences between positive and negative lists). However, the specific products and processes to be listed remain to be decided, as well as their phase out dates (the draft text currently contains place-holder lists). Additionally, it is not a given that both products and process will follow the same type of list; one may be negative and the other positive.

Improper disposal of mercury-containing products can lead to releases of mercury into land and water. Due to its relationship with the product list, wording around disposal is still being decided, as discussed below.

ASGM, Waste, and Trade Issues

Although the parties have agreed on some components of the treaty in regards to trade, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), and waste, there are still several issues to be decided on these topics.

The threshold values of mercury producing facilities that must be identified and monitored within each national territory is still undecided. The higher the threshold, the fewer facilities that must bereported, and therefore potentially more mercury emissions that will be unaccounted for (but less need for monitoring resources). The lower the threshold, the more countries will have to spend on monitoring, but the more likely global mercury will be controlled.

On the issue of ASGM, the parties have not yet agreed as to whether the implementation of ASGM regulations will be contingent on the provision of financial and technical assistance.

In terms of waste monitoring, the parties have not yet decided about this convention’s relation to the Basel Convention. It is already agreed that the trade in waste will require written consent of the receiving nation. This is similar to the Basel Convention’s requirement for “prior informed consent.” However there are some parties to this mercury convention that are not parties to the Basel Convention. The INC5 negotiating parties have not decide whether nations that are not party to Basel Convention will have to comply with agreed upon transport controls, especially with respect to the informed consent and the take-back obligations of the Basel convention.

Technical Transfer and Funding Issues

Just as with any action, stopping mercury use has both desirable and undesirable consequences. Negotiating parties are trying to balance the desirable consequence (such as improved health for humans and animals) with the undesirable consequences. Some of the undesirable consequences include the loss of livelihood for those whose profession relates to mercury releases (people who work in the coal industry, miners, etc). Not reducing mercury emissions and not controlling mercury-containing products endangers the health of humans, animals, and ecosystems around the globe. Some of the people most impacted are those who work directly with mercury in conditions that lack safety precautions, such as workers in waste combustion sites and artisanal and small-scale gold miners. Finding other work for these often-impoverished workers is not as straightforward as its sounds. These workers are in a tough spot; they need work to be able to afford food and shelter, but their means of housing and feeding themselves and their families endangers their health.

Therefore, the negotiating parties will discuss means to facilitate developing nations’ creation of alternative employment and utilization of technology to reduce mercury emissions. Building this capacity in developing nations requires resources. One contentious part of this convention is who provides these resources to the developing nations and in what form.

When specifically discussing technology for reducing mercury emissions, the parties are considering technical assistance and the transfer of technology and knowledge (see our Issue Overview blog on technical and financial assistance for more about this).

Technical assistance and the transfer of technology and knowledge have the potential to create jobs related to the control of mercury, which might be able to replace the jobs that contribute to its emission. However, these types of jobs potentially require different skills and training, which is a non-trivial consideration.

This balancing of cost of implementation requires a mechanism such as a fund. The parties have agreed that there should be a fund. However, they haven’t agreed on who will contribute to it and who will manage it. Related to the management question is the frequency of reviews and evaluations of the fund. A major question on this front is whether the fund should be administered by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

Presently, there are two options on the table for technology transfer. The first is that developed nations will create a mechanism for the transfer of technology to the least developed countries and small island developing states. The second is that the treaty will explicitly state what technology should be transferred.

The assistance issue relates very strongly to the viability of the agreement. If the means for implementing regulations aren’t available, the treaty becomes only words—and many parties probably won’t sign it. Hence, the discussion around assistance will likely be a very interesting part of the coming week!

Watch our blog and follow us on twitter @MITMercury. We’ll be posting details on the discussions and negotiations about these undecided issues as they emerge!

What to Expect from INC5 Day 2—Monday, January 14

by Ellen Czaika

INC5 day 2 is off and running. Monday, January 14 has started off foggy and chilly here in Geneva, and while some wet snowflakes were floating in the air, we didn’t need our umbrellas as we walked to the Conference Center. From a US perspective, it is interesting to have had the convention start on a Sunday. Already, I’ve thought a few times today that, since it’s the second day of the negotiations, it must be Tuesday!

The Bureau Meeting, held between 8 -9am this morning, tackled various organizational topics. At 8:45am, near the main entrance, an NGO group was passing out cards promoting mercury-free livelihoods for mining communities, the elimination of mercury trade for artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), and mercury-free technologies and investments in them.

Six regional groups met starting at 9am: the Asia/Pacific Group, African Group, GRULAC (Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries), European Union, JUSSCANNZ (Japan, US, Canada, and New Zealand), and CEE (Central European Economies). Between 10am- 1pm, the Plenary Session continues with a focus on emissions and releases, and two contact groups are working in parallel: the Financial and Technical Assistance contact group and the Products and Processes contact group.

Lunch today is on our own. Perhaps many will eat in the café at the CICG Conference Center, which serves a variety of starters and mains, while others might boldly venture out of the CICG to explore what the restaurants of Geneva have to offer.

The Bureau meets again from 1-3pm and the Arab Group meets from 2-3pm. The afternoon plenary runs from 3-6pm. Indaba meets from 6-6:30pm and the evening plenary is from 8pm-11pm (although it will almost certainly run later than that). There will likely be contact groups meeting during this time as well.

The schedule for the day is pictured below, although it is subject to change (and likely to change) as contact groups are formed to addresses certain topics.

Look for Leah’s Day 2 Daily Roundup blog late tonight or tomorrow morning (Geneva time) to learn more about the developments of today!

Jan 14 agenda