Category Archives: Rebecca Saari

Personal Reflection: So…. (from Rebecca)

by: Rebecca Saari

Sitting in my desk in Cambridge, MA, folks around me ask, “How was Geneva?” Even through the fog of jetlag, it’s clear it was an amazing, unique experience. If I had to sum it up, it was so very:

So Swiss

Both in and out of the convention center, we enjoyed the alpenhorn, yodeling, Heidi, chocolate, bakeries, fashion, fondue, history, and everything in miniature.

chocolate  miniature_town  fondue

So Cosmopolitan

On the first day, before plenary began, I remember scoping out the placards of the 140 countries in attendance. I even got to meet some of the faces behind those placards, sharing a joke with folks from Qatar, Russia, Switzerland, and the US, finding fellow plenaryCanadians, and enjoying the hospitality of the other NGOs. It was humbling practicing my French, especially around the UN interpreters, with their impressive skill, energy, and personal flair.


So Intellectual

I really enjoyed hopping through museums and historical buildings in Switzerland, hearing how to make the most of my time here in Cambridge, and getting reintroduced to poetry and literature by a group of MIT scientists and engineers.

So Romantic

If you can develop a “meeting crush”, then I fell hard in Geneva. I watched with admiration, as, in multiple languages and throughout all hours of the day, the chairs and co-chairs helmed a conversation that was variously plodding, meandering, or maddening with unerring grace, clarity, wit, and authority. Plus, Chair Fernando Lugris can tango. Co-chair talks to delegates from India.

So Popular

Being involved in public outreach was a first. This is definitely the first time I’ve ended up in candid photos taken by journalists… in the snow, with a goat, you name it.

It was fun connecting with other folks interested in mercury, and watching our blog garner some interest. Some posts were more popular than others. Pop culture, health, animals, cool trivia? Yes. My overly technical opuses? Less so. It was a good lesson in communicating complex topics. I hope I’ve learned it; if my number of twitter followers stays in the low double digits permanently, that would be sad.

So Scientific

Science came up in surprising ways during the talks, whether it pertained to chemical compounds, units of measurement, control technology, or emissions estimation. It was interesting to hear the engineers and lawyers trade interpretations of the text – these are definitely distinct skills.

So Educational

Before we arrived in Geneva, we took a course on global environmental science and policy offered by the MIT Engineering Systems Division. In it, we played a few negotiation simulations. Our experience with the games made it exciting to watch the real delegates break into informal groups; it seemed like we were watching the real work of the meeting, and it was just like when we played the simulations in class. If you want to see what I mean, the mercury game is available online.

That’s all from me! Thanks for reading.

Emissions and Releases in the Final Agreement

By: Rebecca Saari and Leah Stokes

Before the negotiations began, we wrote this post summarizing the key issues negotiators were considering for mercury emissions to air and releases to land and water. It was clear that the delegates had much to resolve. What did countries finally decide, and what does it mean? We’ll cover these questions in this post.

Countries addressed how mercury enters the environment by identifying “relevant sources” for emissions in Annex F. The text specifically identifies coal-fired plants and boilers, non-ferrous metal mining activities, waste incineration, and cement production, as sources for mercury emissions that need to be controlled. Oil and gas, facilities where mercury added products are manufactured, and manganese production, which were all included in the draft Annex F at the beginning of the week, were excluded from the final agreement.

Conversely, sources to land and water are not specified in the treaty text. Instead, it is left to Parties to identify these sources within 3 years of the Convention’s entry into force, with the help of the Conference of the Parties. In other words, this decision was left for future rounds of negotiation.

Parties must also create an inventory of their emissions and releases within 5 years the Convention’s entry into force. This is quite a long time. On the one hand, inventories can take a while. Consider that the US Environmental Protection Agency takes three years to issue updates of its National Emissions Inventory of common air contaminants. Still, many countries have been working on inventorying their mercury emissions and releases for many years, in parallel to the negotiations, so, for many countries, a five year period is quite lenient. Many countries have already completed or begun their inventories, and those who haven’t can use the UNEP Toolkit. This inventory is a critical tool for identifying sources and tracking progress. In fact, measuring emissions may be a key way that the treaty changes state behavior over time, by making emissions and releases more visible.

There’s a difference between how the treaty addresses new and existing emission sources. For new sources, parties must apply Best Available Techniques (BAT) and/or Best Environmental Practices (BEP) within five years. To manage existing sources, parties can choose between applying goals, emissions limits, BAT/BEP, multi-pollutant control options, and other measures that reduce emissions. For existing sources, measures must be applied within 10 years for existing sources of air emissions. There isn’t a corresponding deadline for action on releases, though an optional plan of action may be submitted within 4 years.

As discussed above, there are differences in the treatment of emissions to air versus releases to land and water. However, mercury mobilization, whether to the air or water, will have an equivalent fate in the long run, as explained by Helen Amos. Also, our earlier post pointed out that stricter control of air emissions might create perverse incentives to transfer mercury to the water, where it bioaccumulates in seafood and gets into our diets. The relative importance of releases vs. emissions is also an area of ongoing scientific research.

With the adoption of these articles, Parties have made some meaningful progress in policing how mercury enters our environment. The true test of the treaty’s significance and strength will come in the years to follow, as guidance is crafted and implemented. Ultimately, the treaty will need to not only control emissions and releases, but reduce them. In other words, this treaty is just the end of step one.

What to Expect from INC5 Day 4–Wednesday, January 16

It’s Day 4, and the negotiating sessions are, according to the current schedule, more than half over! What have the negotiators done with all the time so far? They’ve discovered key areas of disagreement, and forged some progress on text in various groups. The plenary sessions are plodding and/or breezing their way through various articles while contact, technical, and drafting groups untangle the details.

The schedule has become fluid, but we expect:

  • A sunny day, rather than yesterday’s snow.
  • “Under Pressure” on repeat in the plenary before we start the day.
  • A late start to the first plenary.
  • Updates on progress from the groups dealing with “Selected Technical Articles” (a.k.a. the “Mega-Contact Group”), Emissions and Releases (a.k.a. my personal favorite, led by witty UK delegate John Roberts), Health (a.k.a. “Guess WHO*?”),  Technical assistance (a.k.a. “Got Tech?”).
  • A polite and sincere urging from Chair Lugris for these groups to continue their “excellent work.”
  • The Mega-Contact Group chugging along continuously, tirelessly (and sleeplessly).
  • Optimistically: finalizing Article 3, 7, 8, Article 9 (ASGM) and maybe even some work on article 13 (storage and waste).
  • A drafting group to continue work on implementation plans.
  • A drafting group to tackle treaty text addressing releases to land and water.
  • A presentation by BRI-IPEN on mercury hotspots.
  • The legal group to continue their helpful work on reviewing some of the draft articles.
  • A small contact group called “Friends of Health” to discuss how to integrate wording on health into the treaty.
  • Another Swiss Break!

Stay tuned for Mark’s daily wrap-up blog, or follow us on twitter @MITmercury or at #MITmercury to catch all the action.

Interested in particular aspects of the treaty discussions?

An already-outdated snap of the day's schedule

An already-outdated snap of the day’s schedule – it’s a fast paced day!

Follow me, @BeckySaari, @NoelleSelin and @leahstokes for coverage on emissions and releases as the delegates try to tackle some text. Our friends are also tweeting away:

  • @alicealpert and (@jvanderhoop following technical and financial assistance.
  • @Bea_Edwards and @lncz will reflect on products and processes
  • @markdstaples and @DanyaRumore are tracking the hot issues of ASGM, supply, waste and trade.
  • @wolfeyp and @amandagiang tweeting on institutions and implementation!

*NOTE: WHO = World Health Organization

Co-Benefits of Mercury Emissions Reduction

Finding the silver lining in reducing quicksilver

By: Rebecca Saari

As a PhD Candidate researching air pollution, I have enjoyed following the treaty discussions, particularly those focusing on emissions and releases. At MIT, I study the many social and environmental gains from reducing air pollution. Often, targeting reductions of a single pollutant – like mercury – can simultaneously serve to reduce other pollutants as a side-benefit. Finding and quantifying such “co-benefits” is my passion. (My other passions include skiing and chocolate, so it does not hurt that the negotiations are in Switzerland.)

Reducing mercury emissions

Nanticoke, coal-fired thermal generating station in Ontario, Canada, with a total capacity of 3,920 MW, was once the largest coal plant in North America. It will no longer burn coal, by the end of 2013 (Photo by Ontario Power Generation).

If the treaty creates new action to reduce mercury emissions, it can realize gains that go far beyond the direct impacts of mercury alone. Controlling mercury from coal-fired combustion, the second-largest air emissions source, can be achieved with measures that also control other pollutants. In particular, reducing mercury emissions to air can also reduce emissions of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

All of these pollutants have significant human health impacts. Estimates of global worldwide deaths due to fine particulate matter exceed 1 million per year. Beijing is currently experiencing extreme levels of fine particulate matter. Countries can use the opportunity presented by this treaty to make progress towards multiple goals in protecting human health and the environment.

Reducing mercury emissions from coal would go a long way towards diminishing the global transport of mercury pollution. Nearly one quarter of all mercury emissions to air arise from the combustion of coal in utility, industrial, and residential boilers.

Many ways to reduce mercury and other pollutants

There are numerous ways to address mercury emissions, which have varying co-benefits.
There are numerous ways to address mercury emissions, which have various co-benefits.

There are many ways to reduce mercury emissions from coal across the entire combustion process, from start to finish, including pre-treating coal, improving process efficiency, and using post-combustion technologies.

Before coal is burned, several actions can reduce mercury, sulfur compounds, and particulate emissions. There are several different types of coal, and they vary in the amount of pollutants they contain. Coal switching and coal blending can allow mercury emissions to be captured more easily. This is a low-tech, potentially low-cost form of mercury reduction. Coal can also be pre-treated through a variety of processes, including washing, beneficiation, and the application of additives. Depending on the type of cleaning and variety of coal, washing alone can remove about 10-80% of the mercury content in coal before combustion takes place.

We can also improve the efficiency of coal plants through operations and maintenance (O&M) measures that lower the emissions intensity of coal-related pollutants including mercury and greenhouse gases, and potentially lead to more sustainable and cost-effective use of fossil fuels. Various O&M measures are effective options. Typically, these approaches target improved combustion efficiency, improved flue-gas ventilation, and reduced leakage and fouling.

Once coal combustion is complete, mercury can be captured using conventional methods designed for other pollutants. Specifically, wet sulfur scrubbers (a.k.a. wet flue gas desulfurization), particulate capture (including fabric filters, electrostatic precipitators), and NOx controls (i.e. selective catalytic reduction) can aid in mercury removal. Depending on the type of coal and configuration of equipment, more than 90% reduction of mercury can be achieved. For additional mercury removal, mercury-specific sorbent injection can be added to the process.

Looking to the future, multi-pollutant control technologies, which aim to reduce key pollutants simultaneously, may gain in popularity. Several systems already exist, at various stages of development, demonstration and commercialization. The mercury treaty has the potential to sow the seeds for broad protection of human health and the environment, beyond the gains due to mercury alone.

Interested in learning more? Three great resources are the UNEP’s “Process Optimization Guidance”, the International Energy Agency Clean Coal Centre and Pacyna et al. There is also an interactive companion to UNEP POG called iPOG, a tool you can use to learn about  options, and estimate your facility’s mercury reduction potential.

Issue Overview: Mercury Emissions and Releases

by Leah Stokes and Rebecca Saari

Each year, humans mobilize around 2000 tonnes of mercury, with about 90% emitted to the air and 10% released to land and water. Since releasing mercury leads to environmental and human health impacts, addressing emissions and releases needs to be a central part of the global mercury treaty.

The draft text of the treaty, developed during the INC4 in Uruguay, distinguishes between emissions to the atmosphere and releases to land and water. However, the extent of controls on anthropogenic emissions remains to be seen, and it is possible that releases will be excluded altogether.


UNEP’s 2013 estimation of  2010 emissions from each global region. These estimations significantly changed since the 2008 reports, where East and Southeast Asia was estimated to contribute two-thirds of global emissions. These changes likely reflect a reduction in the estimation of mercury from coal power plants in Asia and an increase in the estimation of mercury from ASGM in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America.

Currently, almost 40% of mercury emissions come from East and Southeast Asia. Many developed countries have significant regulations on emissions, and the treaty is in part an effort to have all countries adopt standards. Yet most historic emissions came from the developed world. As is the case with climate change negotiations, this dynamic raises equity issues – mainly, who should pay: past emitters or current emitters?

Unlike carbon dioxide, however, mercury is toxic with acute health and environmental impacts, and its release is not tightly coupled with countries’ GDP. For this reason, all countries should be interested in reducing their mercury emissions and releases.

UNEP's 2013 report, "Time to Act" recently updated the proportion of emissions from each source. ASGM is now the largest estimated source of emissions, with coal plants in second place.

UNEP’s 2013 report, “Time to Act” recently updated the proportion of emissions from each source in 2010. ASGM is now the largest estimated source of emissions, with coal plants in second place.

About one-quarter of all global mercury emissions to air come from coal-fired combustion, including power plants and industrial boilers. This suggests an important aim for the treaty is reducing mercury emissions from coal-fired power and heating. There are many ways to achieve this, including pre-treatment of coal and various post-combustion technologies. These options also reduce co-emissions of other harmful air pollutants, and conventional post-combustion treatment can be enhanced to remove 80-90% of mercury emissions. Mercury-specific post-combustion control, which can achieve 90% mercury removal, is also available.

With a variety of emissions control options available, and significant variation in the mercury content of coal, the Chair and delegates are challenged to set appropriate goals and measures. When asked, most countries that currently regulate mercury responded that they employ emissions limits, or limits to the amount of mercury exiting a stack (flue gas concentrations).

Thus far, proposed flue gas limits range from 0.01 to 0.2 mg/m3. For reference, 0.05 mg/mg3 is one of the highest values measured at a series of US plants with limited pollution control through a fabric filter and a low-NOx boiler. In other words, a standard set as high as 0.2 mg/m3 could imply almost no control technology at all (See document: UNEP(DTIE)/Hg/INC.5/4 for more details). Ultimately, the level of control technology required will dramatically affect the treaty’s effectiveness.

While coal-related emissions present a clear priority, other mercury emissions are challenging to address, since they comes from a wide variety of sources, including: gold, cement and metal production, the chlor-alkali industry, waste incineration and dental amalgams. The Chair’s most recent updates also highlighted mining tailings, and sewage and wastewater treatment plants as potential sources. Over one-third of all emissions are from artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), which is addressed in a separate part of the treaty. Decisions on ASGM will dramatically affect global emissions, given that the UNEP 2013 report recently named it the largest source of emissions.

This week, countries have many decisions to make on mercury emissions and releases. Which sources should be controlled—existing or new plants, and from which industries? For examples, it is currently unclear whether the oil and gas sector will be included as a source.

Should small sources be exempted from requirements to inventory and reduce their emissions, and if so, what would the threshold be for a “small” source? Potential thresholds for required controls are listed in the Chair’s documents. For example, coal-fired power plants smaller than 50 MW could be exempted from mercury control technology. For context, 20% of all US coal units are 50 MW or smaller, meaning that this threshold could exempt a significant proportion of plants.

What should the goal be – should the treaty set reduction goals, emission limits, or require best available techniques? As the discussion about flue gas concentrations implies, these standards will have significant consequences. And finally, how flexible should the requirements be—should countries have to commit to specific standards, or can they develop flexible national plans and report at a later date?

The draft text reflects many of these debates. Article 10, which addresses atmospheric emissions, has two options: one, which would require goals, best available techniques or emissions limits; the other, which would require national plans. These issues and many more will need to be decided in the coming week. Decisions on atmospheric emissions and releases to land and water are essential to shaping the treaty’s ultimate environmental and health impacts.