Category Archives: Julie van der Hoop

Unexpected things at INC5. I never thought… (from Julie)

By: Julie van der Hoop

My experiences in Geneva at INC5 were those I had never expected. Though we had played Leah and Noelle’s ‘Mercury Game’ to prepare us for what negotiations might be like, there were so many things that this game didn’t prepare me for.

I never thought…

… I’d be so interested in financial assistance

When I was assigned to pay specific attention to articles pertaining to financial and technical assistance, I was a bit upset. I had my fingers crossed to be in the group on Institutions and Implementation, as I thought it would be most relevant to my research. But having read up on the financial issues for this and past treaties, before I knew it I was completely enthralled. I couldn’t wait for contact groups, or to listen to countries argue over the use of ‘provide’ vs. ‘promote’ vs. ‘facilitate.’

… Scientists’ roles were “just beginning”

In a quick exchange, a delegate mentioned that the role of scientists would begin once the politics ended. Post-treaty, he suggested, science is needed for research, monitoring and reporting. I suggested that the major role we played was before the politics had begun – science identified the issues, the mechanism, the transport, etc. This interaction, along with many other experiences, really made me think about how I felt science and scientists fit in to these policy issues.

… Delegates don’t have a 9 to 5 IMG_1712

When Noelle had warned us that under pressure talks could run late into the night, I wasn’t sure how far off the business schedule we would stray. We learned, first hand, that delegates have more of a 9 to 5am, and that breaking for meals can be more of a privilege, not a right.

… I’d be able to stay up late

Most people who know me are aware of my early bedtime. I rise early, I sleep early, and I like to keep things consistent. Plenary was scheduled to end at 11pm daily, a time when I’d usually have already moved towards bed. So when it routinely went much later and was even postponed until 1:30 am, I am surprised that I made it through.

… Laugh so much IMG_1716

Whether it was the hilarity of the Swiss Breaks (cheese fires included), extended tango dancing metaphors, overuse of Queen’s Hot Space album, or our interest as graduate students to make the most bang for our buck in piling our buffet plates, I laughed a lot this trip. Yes, mercury is a serious issue and it needs to be treated as such. But taking the time to make snow angels at 2:00 am or write acrostic poems of country positions can help balance the mind, or at least keep one awake.

… I’d see Geneva!IMG_1727

I had low expectations of sightseeing, but luckily we had a chance to catch a couple of sights on the last day (after having slept a couple of hours!)

… Get twitter.



Financial and Technical Assistance in the Final Agreement

By: Alice Alpert and Julie van der Hoop

Financial commitments were a major concern in the final days of negotiation at INC5. In an earlier blog post, we summarized some of the key issues to be addressed. During the week, a contact group on financial and technical assistance was charged with producing articles detailing:

  • the mechanism by which countries that need help meeting their commitments under the convention could receive funds,
  • the forms of technical assistance, capacity building, and technology transfer available under the convention, and
  • the form of a committee to review implementation and/or compliance.

Discussions in this contact group highlighted the struggles between the developed global North and the developing global South. The North emphasized the need for strict regulations to protect health and the environment. The South stressed the importance of development in promoting well-being there, and the need for an approach that recognized the common but differentiated responsibilities of different countries. However, this distinction between North and South is further complicated by rapidly-developing economies such as China, India, and Brazil. These countries account for a significant and growing portion of global mercury emissions, but still stressed the need for assistance in meeting potential obligations.

Much of the negotiations on financial assistance occurred behind closed doors, in “friends of the co-chairs” meetings during the final evening of negotiations. The all-night drafting group consisted of 14 members, equally represented by developed and developing countries. The composition of the drafting group was key because this was where the hard compromises were hammered out. Early Saturday morning, this group emerged with a compromise that is included in the final treaty text.

The treaty establishes a financial mechanism, made up of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and a specific international Programme, to support developing countries in implementing actions on mercury. It states that all Parties may contribute to both the GEF and the international Programme. This is a notable provision, and this language may reflect the diverse group of donors to the GEF, some of whom are also to receive mercury-related funding (e.g. Mexico and China).  In addition to provisions on a financial mechanism, a separate article addresses Technical Assistance, Capacity Building and Technology Transfer. Technical assistance and capacity building will be provided to developing countries, while technology transfer will be promoted.

This compromise reflects elements of both developed and developing country priorities. Implementation of the convention is not strictly tied to the provision of financial resources, which was suggested by developing countries and opposed by developed countries. While an additional programme was included beyond the GEF and include new resources (a win for developing countries), funding will be voluntary (consistent with developed countries’ positions).

The final version of the text shows a masterful blend of many voices and offers every party some element of a victory. For more on the concept of “win-win” negotiations, and what it really means, see our guest post by Larry Susskind. In the final text, some statements stand alone in their own paragraphs for special emphasis, and great care has been taken in the order of concepts and their linkage or non-linkage. For example, in the article on the financial mechanism, implementation is explicitly disconnected from provision of funds. However, the article on implementation and compliance links these two ideas in saying that the implementation and compliance committee will provide “resources to meet costs in support of implementation of the Convention.” Thus, in order to be seen as legitimate by all parties, the final text is a grand compromise that also includes some mixed messages.

Crossing the Language Barrier: Interpretation at the UN

By: Julie van der Hoop

INC5 is over, and I’ve returned home to campus. Though friends have been asking me questions about my experience, and how I got the opportunity to attend the negotiations, there has been one question that comes up almost every time: How many languages are spoken in a UN negotiation and how do you understand them?

Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Pedro-Jose Espinosa, the chief interpreter at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi. After post-graduate education in law and economics, Pedro moved to Geneva and switched careers. First, he worked for UN translation services, and then became involved in interpretation. “Experience in law and economics is helpful,” he said, though interpretation is often a “third level career” – one that people come to after a first or second job. Some enter immediately after attending education programs specifically for interpretation and translation but, he said, “anyone can do it.” Assuming, of course, they speak several languages.


Interpreters working in the booth at INC5.

Some Basics

The UN has six official languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and Chinese. Two of these languages, English and French, are the working languages of the UN, meaning they are used in day-to-day communication. This is because the language of diplomacy has historically been French but, within the last 50 years, English has become dominant.

Any official texts, such as Conference Room Papers (CRPs), are translated into all official languages. The treaty text is likewise available in these six languages, but all references are made to the English version of the treaty. As the Legal Group works only in English, this version is the official ‘legally-binding’ text to be used in negotiations and tribunals.

This leads us to a point of clarification: translation deals with text, and interpretation refers specifically to the spoken word.

Interpretation in the Conference Center

In booths at the back of the conference room, interpreters listen to delegates as they speak into their microphones; they then interpret what is being said and communicate this back to attendees, who listen through headphones and select the language they want to hear. Interpreters derive meaning from their “passive” languages — i.e., the languages spoken by the delegates—and convey the meaning of what is being said in their “active” language.

But interpreters don’t have to know all of the official languages – at a minimum, they only need to know two. In planning an interpretation team, the chief must match up different abilities to create a working relay system. One interpreter may go from Arabic to English, and another from English to Chinese, as there may be no one on staff who can interpret straight from Arabic to Chinese. “The amount of relaying must be minimized,” said Pedro. “You don’t want it to become a game of ‘telephone’.”

Interpretation is simultaneous, meaning that the language is interpreted as the delegate is still speaking; there is no intermediate pause to allow an interpreter to convey a message. Because of how exhausting the job is, interpreters switch off in half-hour shifts, and work seven ‘half-days’ out of the ten in a five-day work week.

And on the other three ‘half-days’? “We recuperate and prepare,” Pedro said.

Preparation is key to success in interpretation: knowledge of the meeting topic is extremely important in putting things in context and being familiar with jargon. “Technical meetings are the most difficult,” both in understanding and in interpreting what negotiators are saying. For example, knowing the difference between HFCs, CFCs, or HCFCs is critical to ensure proper communication in climate change negotiations.


The job doesn’t come without challenges. Keeping pace with a speaker can be extremely difficult when many delegates read from written statements on the floor. When people read, they speak much faster than when they are just talking, which makes it difficult for an interpreter to hear, process, and repeat the speech fast enough. Accents can also be plaguing – just consider the number of accents in English. Australian, Jamaican, and Japanese delegates all communicate on the floor in English, so an interpreter must be able to understand all of the various accents in a single passive language.

And if an interpreter is at a loss for words? “There are strategies for coping,” according to Pedro. An interpreter can continue with the speech, and fill in whatever meaning might have been lost. “Interpreting is not translating,” Pedro said. Paraphrasing is often needed as there are words and sentiments that do not have full equivalents in all languages. In the end, “it’s the message that counts.”

Bioamplification, Bioaccumulation and Bioconcentration

By: Julie van der Hoop

The confusion between bioamplification, bioaccumulation and bioconcentration is understandable. Yesterday, delegates asked for a clarification and explanation as to how this happens. These terms are not interchangeable, though they are often used as if they were. This post should clarify the situation.


Bioamplification (or biomagnification, as the picture shows) refers to an increase in the concentration of a substance as you move up the food chain. This often occurs because the pollutant is persistent, meaning that it cannot be, or is very slowly, broken down by natural processes. These persistent pollutants are transferred up the food chain faster than they are broken down or excreted.

In contrast, bioaccumulation occurs within an organism, where a concentration of a substance builds up in the tissues and is absorbed faster than it is removed. Bioaccumulation often occurs in two ways, simultaneously: by eating contaminated food, and by absorption directly from water. This second case is specifically referred to as bioconcentration.

So, what have we learned? Bioconcentration and bioaccumulation happen within an organism, but biomagnification occurs across levels of the food chain. An example: phytoplankton and other microscopic organisms take up methylmercury and then retain it in their tissues. Here, mercury bioaccumulation is occurring: mercury concentrations are higher in the organisms than it is in the surrounding environment. As animals eat these smaller organisms, they receive their prey’s mercury burden. Because of this, animals that are higher in the food chain have higher levels of mercury than they would have due to regular exposure. With increasing trophic level, mercury levels are amplified.

What to Expect from INC5 Day 3–Tuesday, January 15

by Julie van der Hoop

It’s Day 3 of the INC5 negotiations. By now, we’ve all become a bit more familiar the format of proceedings. However, our schedules are becoming more and more fluid as plenary sessions devolve into contact groups, which can have much more unpredictable (read: long) hours.

Contact groups are sessions that occur at the same time as plenary, where countries and observers discuss a particular subject of interest. These sessions are less formal than plenary, and are usually in English only (stay tuned to the blog about interpretation at the UN!). Here at INC5, the Chair has established contact groups to edit particular articles and subsections of the treaty.

That being said, today’s agenda doesn’t explicitly list any contact group meetings. Yet. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the first contact group meetings begin right after lunch, if not before).


Today is the day that we will have one of the negotiations’ biggest questions answered: what is a Swiss break? We’ve been invited by the host country to enjoy their hospitality over dinner hours, 18:00 – 20:00. But what will this Swiss break entail!? Stay tuned for Alice’s daily wrap-up blog, or follow us on twitter @MITmercury or at #MITmercury to find out.

Interested in particular aspects of the treaty discussions? @alicealpert and I (@jvanderhoop) will be covering continued discussions on technical and financial assistance. @Bea_Edwards and @lncz are staying late in the night for work on products and processes, and @markdstaples and @DanyaRumore are summarizing ASGM, supply, waste and trade. Check out @wolfeyp and @amandagiang for more general discussions on institutions and implementation!

Measuring Our Mercury Exposure Through Hair Samples

By: Leah Stokes & Noelle Selin

Mercury is a toxin that harms human health. People become exposed to mercury primarily by eating fish. In some communities, where artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) occurs, exposure can be quite high. This is because people may breathe in mercury fumes from the process.

It is possible to tell how much mercury a person has been exposed to by testing their hair, blood and urine. Estimating mercury exposure through hair samples is primarily a measure of methylmercury — the most toxic form of mercury. But, it may also be influenced by the hair surface’s exposure to emissions. For example, if a person using mercury to capture gold stands over the amalgam (the mixture of mercury and gold) while they are burning off the mercury, it is likely that some of this mercury could end up on their hair.

At INC2, the second round of the mercury treaty negotiations in Chiba, Japan in early 2011, delegates and observers were able to measure the mercury concentration in their hair. We both sent in samples, and found out that Noelle had a concentration of 1.39 ppm while Leah had a concentration of 0.75 ppm. These values are close to, or below the WHO and the US EPA guidance values for mercury in hair: 1.8 ppm and 1.2 ppm respectively.* Many other delegates at the negotiations had mercury concentrations around 4.00 ppm, which is above these guidance values. For most people, mercury concentrations in hair reflect fish consumption, and Leah is mostly a vegetarian, while Noelle is from New England and loves fish.

Chart complied from Arnika data by Amanda Giang and Julie van der Hoop.

Chart complied by Amanda Giang and Julie van der Hoop using self-reported data on Arnika’s website.

Arnika, a Czech non-governmental organization (NGO), and a member of both International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) and Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG), has posted a website where people around the world are reporting the mercury concentrations in their hair. These individuals then reflect on this information in light of the current negotiations, sending a message to delegates.

Amanda Giang and Julie van der Hoop compiled the self-reported data from Arnika’s website, to give you a sense of how mercury concentrations in hair can vary across countries.

* Note: The WHO and EPA actually give their recommendations in terms of daily oral intake of methylmercury. Amanda Giang converted these values to hair mercury concentrations using conversion factors developed by Rice et al. (2010), Stern (2005), and Allen et al. (2007).

Dinner…with a side of mercury?

by Julie van der Hoop

Worldwide, fish consumption is the main source of human exposure to methylmercury, a highly toxic form of mercury that biomagnifies up the food chain [1]. Accordingly, a fair amount of media attention has focused on mercury content in fish as a potential public health threat [2]. In an effort to protect consumers, US state and federal agencies have set guidelines for limiting consumption of fish that tend to be high in levels of methymercury (these guidelines are particularly important for pregnant women and women of childbearing age, as fetal exposure to methylmercury can create long-term developmental impacts). Additionally, health advisories are available online to help consumers avoid consuming types of fish that are particularly high in mercury and other toxins.

In light of these health concerns, it is no surprise that one of the aims of a global mercury treaty is to, through reducing mercury emissions, ultimately reduce the levels of toxic methylmercury in fish and shellfish.

Should we eat fish?

Fish are often touted for their great nutritional profile: they’re low in fat, with high-quality protein and an added dose of vitamins. The American Heart Association recommends at least two 3-ounce servings of fish per week to obtain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. However, balancing the risks of mercury consumption and the benefits of fatty acids can be difficult for both consumers and those faced with the task of setting advisories.

Some studies are now urging consumers to weigh the risks and benefits of eating certain types of fish. In terms of what to avoid, shark and swordfish shouldn’t make it to your plate, not even for a single meal per month. The health benefits of fishes such as tilapia, pollack, flounder, shrimp, trout, herring, salmon, canned light tuna, and cod generally outweigh their potential mercury concentration cons [3]. That being said, other contaminants (e.g., persistent organochlorines in farmed salmon) and fishery sustainability (e.g., depletion of many cod stocks) are additional concerns worth considering when planning your meals.

Will fish mercury levels ever decrease?

It’s uncertain when—and whether—you’ll be able to enjoy all-you-can-eat sushi without thinking about how much mercury you’re consuming. However, recent research is helping us better understand how changes in mercury emissions could affect the future methylmercury content in fish.

In a new study, researchers added mercury to an experimental lake to learn how quickly it was incorporated into fish and to track what happened when mercury-addition stopped. Good news: concentrations of methylmercury in lake fish decreased much faster than previously thought. As reported by Susan Bence this week, researchers working on the project believe that reductions in mercury emissions could lead to a fairly rapid decrease in fish mercury levels in certain ecosystems. How fast these levels will decrease, however, will vary depending on where the fish are caught.

Still, mercury cycles through the environment very slowly, and even if we can restrict future emissions to current level, this will not reduce the global mercury burden. A major cut in mercury emissions is needed to reduce methylmercury concentrations in marine fish: as a recent report by Chen et al. shows, cutting mercury emissions by about 40% could lead to a 16% decline in mercury concentrations in fish in the North Atlantic Ocean.

What should you do in the meantime?

To help guide you in your fish dining decisions, check out the EPA’s online guidelines for eating and selecting fish and shellfish, as well as the consumer guides and apps available from groups such as NRDC and the Sierra Club. Still, what might matter most in is not the species of fish, but where it was caught [4]. Informing ourselves as consumers is increasingly important – whether it be for concerns over sustainability or mercury consumption.

Issue Overview: Financial and Technical Assistance

by Alice Alpert and Julie van der Hoop

If the global mercury treaty is adopted but does not include any support for countries that lack the resources to implement it, it is unlikely to achieve its goals. Therefore, Section I of the treaty seeks to establish a framework by which developed countries can assist developing countries in implementing and complying with the treaty by outlining financial and technical assistance measures.

It is easy for parties to agree to provide the resources needed to implement the treaty, but what does that mean? The first step is to establish a mechanism for this assistance: like a fund. The administration and oversight of this fund is a huge issue. Developing countries say the money is “theirs”—that it has basically been given to them and thus they should be controlling it. Developed countries say that, since they are providing the money,  they should decide who gets it and what is done with it. Developed countries typically want funds to be part of an existing institution, the Global Environment Facility, to which they already contribute and have influence over. In contrast, developing countries generally prefer a new and independent fund. There will be a separate provision for how the fund will be administered and what activities it will support. This sets up potential redundancies and conflicts, but also opens up opportunities for give-and-take negotiation.

Section I of the treaty is also addresses technical assistance and technology transfer. Technical assistance can be explained as helping a country adopt a technology through capacity building and training. Technology transfer refers to the distribution of intellectual property rights.

In the case of mercury, transferring technologies to reduce emissions from coal plants or to produce mercury alternatives would need to be shared between the countries that conceived them and those who need to implement them. Technology transfer, however, is a contentious issue, and it’s no surprise that there are two options for this section of the treaty text: 1) create mechanisms for the transfer of technology to developing countries to assess, review, develop, present, and establish a process for technology transfer, and 2) “consider the technology challenges of developing country parties” and promote mutually agreed upontechnology transfer. The latter is greatly favored by developed countries, while developing countries would prefer option 2. However, some countries would prefer that the treaty not include technology transfer at all. Clearly, this is going to be a major point of discussion during the treaty talks this week.

Looking at the financial and technical assistance issue overall, developing countries are most interested in obtaining aid, while developed countries don’t want to take too much responsibility for funds, although they stand to gain health benefits from decreased mercury emissions. There is high potential for gridlock over questions of how to apportion funds, who owns the global fund, and who gives and gets—these questions should make for some interesting dialogue during the upcoming week!

As with most global environmental and health issues, there is an intersection between social, environmental, and development issues here. Inclusion of all countries is critical given major sources and emitters, but this requires a great deal of understanding and negotiation for developed countries to meet potential obligations.

We’re curious to see how the discussion over financial and technical assistance plays out!