Author Archives: Mark Staples

About Mark Staples

I am a second year Masters student in the Technology and Policy Program at MIT and a Research Assistant for the Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment. My research interests include energy and the environment, specifically alternative fuels for aviation. At INC5 I’ll be focusing on issues related to mercury trade and supply, artisinal scale gold mining, and waste.

Supply and Trade, Waste, and ASGM in the Final Agreement

by Mark Staples and Danya Rumore

During INC5, we were responsible for the interconnected issues of mercury supply and trade (Article 3), waste (Article 13), and artisanal and small-scale gold mining, or ASGM (Article 9). These articles were introduced in plenary early on and, given disagreement about the text, were quickly sent to the contact group on selected technical articles for revision. It took until mid-afternoon on Friday for the contact group to reach resolution on these topics, but an agreement was reached. Here is a summary of how these issues evolved over the course of the week and an overview of what made it into the agreed-upon treaty text.

Supply, Trade, and Waste

In our previous issue overview blogs on mercury supply and trade and waste, we anticipated that discussions on these issues would focus on 1) whether and how to regulate primary mercury mining operations; 2) the identification of existing stocks of mercury and mercury compound; and 3) the integration of concepts from the Basel Convention and Rotterdam Convention into the mercury treaty.

In terms of primary mercury mining, the biggest breakthrough of the negotiations was an agreement to phase-out existing primary mercury mining operations within 15 years of treaty ratification, despite initial stiff opposition from China, a nation that is currently home to significant mercury mining. Additionally, a ban on new primary mercury mining was agreed upon. Some countries with mercury deposits but no existing primary mining operations requested financial compensation for foregone resource development resulting from the ban on new mining. Thankfully, the contact group Co-Chair, Donald Hannah, helped avoid this potential sticking point by making clear that discussion of such compensation was beyond the scope of the technical working group. Importantly, the ban on new mining and phase-out existing mining will help prevent the continued release of mercury from lithosphere into the earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and soil.

It was agreed upon at INC4 that all parties must quantify secondary sources of mercury and mercury compounds by taking inventory of “stocks” and “supply-generating stocks”. However, the thresholds sizes for the accounting of these sources were not defined in the draft treaty text put together by the Chair, and we expected that this would be a point of contention during the final negotiations. Surprisingly, the contact group quickly settled upon thresholds of 50 metric tons for individual stocks and 10 metric tons per year of supply-generating stocks. While the question of threshold sizes was easily resolved, the question of whether mercury compounds should be included in the clauses of article 3 was the source of much debate. Resistance came primarily from the American delegates, who did not want mercury compounds to be included. However, after much debate, it was decided that mercury compounds will be included.

Discussion around supply, trade, and waste also focused on whether and how to include a “Prior Informed Consent” (PIC) mechanism, similar to that included in the Rotterdam Convention, for mercury import and export. From the contact group discussions, it was clear that PIC is important to developing nations, especially those from the African Group and Group of Latin America and Caribbean Countries (GRULAC). In the end, the contact group agreed upon a PIC mechanism that allows states to submit standing consent, indicating PIC of all mercury imports until further notice, to the Secretariat. This compromise is designed to stem the flow of illicit or unwanted mercury trade while, at the same time, minimizing the administrative burden of PIC.

Finally, Article 12 of the agreed upon treaty text mandates that the trans-boundary movements of mercury waste must comply with the terms of the Basel Convention.

Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining

UNEP’s Global Mercury Assessment 2013 indicates that ASGM is now the largest source of anthropogenic mercury emissions. As such, we expected significant negotiation over whether and how to regulate the import and export of mercury for ASGM, and possibly some discussion over the eventual phase-out of ASGM.

However, ASGM is a particularly difficult issue to address in a multi-lateral setting like INC5. Beyond the environmental issues, which are both local and global in nature, ASGM is tied to the economic interests of many developing nations. As a result, there are serious trade-offs between the social and economic benefits and the health and environmental impacts of ASGM, and these trade-offs need to be considered when making an ASGM policy.

At INC5, Article 9 on ASGM was discussed but was not altered dramatically from the Chair’s proposed text. No special restrictions were placed on the use of imported mercury for ASGM, and no phase-out date was included in the draft treaty text. The only significant change to the Chair’s proposed text was the addition of some relatively weak wording in Annex E (which concerns national action plan requirements for ASGM) indicating that nations must develop “strategies for managing trade and preventing diversion of mercury” for ASGM.


Although supply, trade, waste, and ASGM are seemingly separate issues, it worked surprisingly well for a single contact group to work toward agreement on these topics along with issues related to products and processes. By discussing all of these concerns in detail in the same forum, delegates were able to trade across issues to develop a text that, in aggregate, was acceptable to everyone. As Lawrence Susskind says in his blog on good negotiation strategy, working across issues to create package solutions is important for mutual gains outcomes.

We can’t wait to see if the final versions of Articles 3, 9, and 13 will stand up to their next test: the signing in Minamata!

Four takeaways from Geneva (from Mark)

The opportunity to attend INC5 was the most unique academic experience of my time at MIT so far. Not only was I exposed to the environmental policy-making process at the highest level, but I also got to travel overseas with an incredible group of people. I learned a ton, but here are my top four takeaways from Geneva:

Technical details don’t always matter:

Sitting in on the contact group on selected technical articles, I was surprised by how quickly we would sometimes reach the limits of technical knowledge in the room. I recall one exchange about fluorescent light bulbs. One country was advocating for an exemption of a certain type of bulbs, but when pressed on the issue, could not describe their actual use. In fact, no one in the room knew exactly what the new proposed text was referring to! It was clear that the delegate had received specific policy goals from her government, but didn’t have a complete grasp of the reasoning behind them. In the end the delegates came to a compromise concerning the technology, but I was very surprised that so much time was spent on something that no one in the room really understood.

Stamina counts:

Many important decisions were reached in the early hours of the final days of INC5, and the delegations that were present and making sure their voices were heard at that point often got their way. The ability to remain sharp, focused and tenacious throughout an exhausting week of negotiations is a big factor for whose policy view will be reflected in the text.

Compromises are reached behind closed doors:

As the week wore on it became clear that the breaks between formal meeting times, when delegates had the opportunity to meet bilaterally to discuss their positions, were when compromises were made. The large contact group meetings really only allowed delegations to lay out their positions, and to determine the areas of contention. Then, in the breaks, delegates were able to speak to one another informally in order to trade across issues silos, and come to agreeable compromise.

Capacity is a determinant of success:

George Orwell might have said of UNEP negotiations, “All states are equal, but some states are more equal than others.” Although every state has equal opportunity to voice their concerns in plenary and contact groups, there is a clear disparity in states’ abilities to effectively advocate for their policy interests. The USA, Canada, the EU, Norway, Switzerland, Japan and China routinely dominated conversations, and it is no fluke that these groups devoted significant human and financial resources to their INC5 delegations. This disparity of capacity became more evident as the week wore on. In some cases, when there were multiple contact groups working simultaneously, lower-capacity delegations could not afford to send the people in order to be represented at every discussion.

Reading back over these lessons, I recognize that they could be interpreted to deduce that I have a negative impression of the UNEP INC process. In reality, I feel quite the opposite. Although I now better understand the realities of the process, I am truly amazed at the way that so many parties with such diverse (and often conflicting) interests were able to come to an agreement. It is a slow, imperfect, and sometime torturous process, but in the end the parties were able to reach some kind of equilibrium on all the issues on the table. It might sound cheesy, but that gives me hope for the type of multi-lateral, global problems that the world will increasingly face in the future.

Issue Overview: Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining

by Mark Staples and Danya Rumore

Throughout much of the world, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) provides subsistence livelihoods for more than 15 million people and produces up to 30% of the world’s mined gold.

Unfortunately, the sector relies heavily on mercury as a critical part of their gold extraction process. Mercury is added to ore to form a mercury-gold amalgam. This amalgam is then burned, causing the mercury to vaporize and leaving behind pure gold. While an effective process—one that has been in practice since at least 1000 CE— this type of mining leads to the direct exposure of miners to mercury, often with severe health impacts. ASGM is also responsible for the direct release of mercury into the environment and, according to the recently released Global Mercury Assessment 2013, small-scale gold mining is currently the largest human-caused source of mercury emissions. Additionally, ASGM drives a black market in mercury trade—check out Mark Staples’ blog on the illicit mercury trade to learn more about this.

Some nations, such as China, have already banned ASGM practices. Practically, however, these bans are difficult to implement. ASGM occurs almost entirely in the “informal section”—i.e., not as part of regulated industry—throughout the world, making it hard to monitor and control. As a result, the use of mercury in small-scale mining operations still occurs in nations that have implemented ASGM bans.

Despite the challenges associated with monitoring and regulating ASGM, acting to limit this major source of mercury releases is critical and possible. Accordingly, ASGM has attracted significant attention at INC5. The debate around article 9, which addresses ASGM issues, has focused on whether the import and export of mercury will be allowed for ASGM purposes, and if a phase-out date for ASGM will be introduced. In the next 24 hours, these are issues that will likely be resolved in balance with other supply and trade and products and processes issues. However, for now, it remains to be seen what will be decided.

Track us on twitter @markdstaples and @DanyaRumore to see what the negotiators decide on this critical issue!

Daily Roundup for INC5 Day 4—Wednesday, January 17

by Mark Staples

Day 4 marked the beginning of the second half of INC5. A lot of work remains to be done before a global mercury treaty can be agreed to, and the delegates were eager to get down to work in their contact groups.

Supply and Trade, ASGM, & Waste

Work continued on Article 3 concerning supply and trade in the selected technical articles contact group, focusing specifically on the notification requirements for mercury export and import. Delegates debated the merits of a mechanism similar to prior informed consent from the Rotterdam Convention applied to the mercury trade.  While such a mechanism would give importing states more control over the mercury trade, some delegates argued that it would be too burdensome. There was also debate concerning whether or not the trade restrictions should apply to mercury compounds in addition to elemental mercury.

As the contact group worked late into the night, they were expecting to hear back from drafting groups on alternative and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) issues and primary mercury mining, and intended to finish their mandate before breaking for the night.

Products & Processes

Because they were occupied with supply and trade and ASGM issues, the contact group did not devote much time to the product and processes text. However, co-chair Abiola Olanipekun did introduce CRP 14 in the afternoon plenary, which despite many remaining brackets, will be sent to the legal group for polishing before reconsideration in the contact group.

Financial & Technical Assistance

Article 15 on financial assistance was discussed in morning plenary, with all countries agreeing that a special financial regime is needed to assist countries in implementing this convention. While finances have historically been considered a “developed vs. developing” country issue, Switzerland made the point that effective finance is in all parties’ interests. After only short discussion, Article 15 was sent to a contact group that will meet tomorrow.

After a day of small-group negotiations, a revised Article 16 on capacity building, technical assistance, and technology transfer was presented as a package to our contact group. With only a few hurdles, it was fully accepted and was presented in this afternoon’s plenary session. Chair Lugris thanked this contact group for setting the tone of progress as he sent the article off to the legal group.

Institutions & Implementation

In the morning, a separate contact group was convened to work on sections of the treaty text related to definitions, institutional linkages, and implementation—an ambitious set of topics. Before lunch, the group set to work on the definitions of mercury, mercury compounds, mercury-added products, and use allowed. While it might seem like these definitions should be fairly obvious, delegates were on the lookout for any technical or legal ambiguities that could leave the door open for loopholes or non-compliance. Definitions were agreed upon for most of these terms, with the exception of “use allowed.” In the evening, the group divided into even smaller working groups for informal negotiations on the question of implementation/compliance/implementation and compliance committees.

Emissions & Releases

Delegates working on emissions had a productive day, generating papers on what kinds of mercury emissions sources will be included in the treaty, and making progress on the issue of releases to land and water.

Annex F on the included emissions sources is now nearly complete. “Sources included” now refers specifically to point sources from major agreed-upon categories, with only two categories still up for debate: iron and steel (and secondary steel), and open burning. The group seemed to reach a consensus on control measures for new sources, and is currently discussing the complex issue of addressing existing sources.

The MIT team enjoys a Swiss Break with some new friends. Photo credit: Earth Negotiations Bulletin:

The MIT team enjoys a Swiss Break with some new friends. Photo credit: Earth Negotiations Bulletin:

At the Swiss break, chocolate incentives were offered to spur the delegates. In the emissions contact group, the chair brandished the reward, and good-naturedly warned the delegates that he would eat all the chocolate himself if they did not finish the draft text on emissions promptly.

Afternoon Plenary

In an address to the plenary, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, along with Swiss Environment Minister Doris Luethard, urged delegates to forge ahead and to do their best to reach agreement on the treaty text by Friday. The Minister pledged 1 million Swiss Francs as an interim contribution to the future convention on behalf of the Swiss government, and the governments of Norway and Japan each matched the pledge.

The objective is to have the draft text complete by today, Thursday, at lunch in order to complete the treaty by 6pm on Friday. Will they make it? Stay tuned to find out! We’ll be eagerly following the proceedings on Twitter (@MITMercury) and here on our blog.

Issue Overview: Mercury Supply and Trade

by Mark Staples and Danya Rumore

Mark and Danya here. During the INC5 negotiations, we’re covering issues related to mercury waste, supply and trade, and artisanal and small scale-gold mining (ASGM). Here, in our second installment, we provide an overview of mercury supply and trade, discuss what is already included in the draft treaty text about this issue, and explain what is now being discussed and will hopefully be decided in the days ahead.

All mercury used in products and processes originates from deposits in the earth’s crust. Deposits are distributed around the world, with a large concentration in western Asia and China. Mines in Spain, Italy, and Slovenia were historically the main global sources of the metal, but most mercury mining today occurs in Kyrgyzstan and China.

Once extracted, mercury is traded as a global commodity. Annual international movements of mercury have historically been on the order of 1000–2000 tonnes per year. Nations that have existing mines aren’t the only exporters of mercury; a number of developed nations have existing stocks of mercury available for export, or they act as brokers between primary sources and importing nations.

On the issue of supply, the proposed treaty text bans new primary mercury mining and the export, sale, or distribution of existing mercury (except for the uses listed in Annex D II). While Annex D has been drafted, the specifics of the Annex are still being discussed, as is the question of whether any restrictions will be placed on existing mercury-mining operations.

The proposed treaty text also requires that parties identify all mercury stocks within their territory. However, the threshold size of these stocks is not yet stipulated. We expect that this will be a subject of debate during the remaining days of the negotiations.

In terms of trade, the proposed text mandates that mercury can only be exported for allowable uses, as described by the treaty, or for environmentally sound disposal. It also requires that exporting countries obtain written consent from the recipient country. This section of the text reflects the integration of the Basel Convention, which concerns the global transboundary movement of hazardous wastes, into the mercury treaty. Of particular importance, the proposed treaty text also invokes the principle of “prior informed consent” from the Rotterdam Convention. The specific responsibilities of exporting and importing countries, as well as the extent of guidance that the Conference of the Parties is expected to provide on this front, is and will likely continue to be the source of some interesting discussion among involved parties.

The mercury supply and trade issue is now being discussed in a focused “technical articles” contact group. We hope that delegates are able to make significant progress on this front in the hours ahead so that we can move onto addressing artisanal and small-scale mining, discussing waste and storage, and—ultimately—reaching agreement on an effective global mercury treaty.

Follow us on twitter @markdstaples and @DanyaRumore as we post live updates on the negotiations!

ASGM and the Illicit Mercury Trade

By: Mark Staples

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is a source of income for around 15 million miners in the developing world. Mercury is often used to separate and purify the gold from the soil and other sediments in the whole ore, and to pick up small amounts of gold.

Despite the environmental damage and health costs mercury causes, when it is boiled off from the gold-mercury amalgam, this practice is still widespread. Globally, over 700 tonnes of mercury are emitted to the atmosphere from ASGM each year, with over 800 tonnes released to land and water. These local releases can create significant health impacts in nearby communities.

In most developed nations, the use of mercury in industrial processes has tapered off as public awareness of its toxicity has grown. However, high gold prices continue to incentivize ASGM operations. As a result, mercury prices are correlated with gold prices.

This figure is taken from a study by Sippl & Selin, 2012.

This figure is taken from a study by Sippl & Selin, 2012.

Mercury mines are still open, primarily in China, and these sources provide a steady supply of mercury for ASGM operations in the developing world. In fact, a significant proportion of the mercury that is imported to ASGM countries and their neighbors is either mined in, or transported via, developed nations. This study provides some interesting insight into the global flows of primary mercury to ASGM practicing nations.

One of the greatest challenges for understanding the contribution of ASGM to anthropogenic releases of mercury to the environment is a lack of transparency and completeness of data. For example, the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database (COMTRADE), used in a number of analyses of the global flow of commodities like mercury, is voluntary and incomplete. Further, mercury is almost never officially traded for the stated purpose of gold amalgamation, making it harder to track.

While many countries, including China, Brazil, French Guiana and Indonesia, have laws in place to monitor or limit the use of ASGM operations, large volumes of mercury are still imported for gold mining. Mercury is often imported for ostensibly legal use in dental amalgams, but is then made available to miners in chemical or dental shops once inside the country. The ease with which miners can obtain this neurotoxin is alarming.

At the negotiations, delegates focused heavily on ASGM on January 14 at INC5. The proposed text, Article 9, addresses ASGM; parties are debating whether continued use of mercury should be permitted or whether it should be phased out. Brazil, Mali and the Alliance for Responsible Mining (an industry group), all voiced support for the continued, legal international trade of mercury for ASGM. These delegations argued that ASGM is going to happen regardless of the outcome of these negotiations because it occurs in the informal sector. Banning mercury trade would only criminalize an important economic activity in developing nations. Instead of effectively discouraging the international trade of mercury, a phase out of the permissible import of mercury for ASGM might simply force the trade underground.

I’m not so näive as to believe that including a phase-out date for the legal trade of ASGM-destined mercury in the treaty would be entirely effective. In all likelihood, the illicit trade in mercury that already exists will simply grow to fill that gap. However, I do believe that better monitoring and reporting on ASGM-destined mercury, in preparation for a legally binding phase-out, could only aid in getting a handle on this harmful trade and on the extent of ASGM as an informal practice. It would also allow miners and developing nations to transition to alternative ASGM techniques, such as gravity concentration, sluice boxes or cyanidation.

There is clearly some cognitive dissonance in the way in which mercury is traded and used by importing and exporting nations. It seems to me that this is an issue that needs to be resolved to help stem the flow of mercury that is harmful to both human health and the environment. I’m excited to see the progress that will be made on this issue this week.

For more information about ASGM, you can check out the NGO Artisanal Gold Council’s site and the recent report from Human Rights Watch. Here is a short video which explains how ASGM with mercury works: