Category Archives: Alice Alpert

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.

Scientist on the Scene: Advice for Working at the Boundary of Science and Policy from Dr. David Evers

by Alice Alpert and Danya Rumore

Amid observing and analyzing the INC5 negotiations, one question that seems to be on many of our MIT team members’ minds is “As scientists and academics, what is our role in influencing policy and decision-making?” More specifically, where does the line between science and advocacy lie, and how should a scientist who cares about a given issue—like mercury—interact (or not) with the policy realm?

Looking for answers, a couple of us cornered Dr. David Evers after an INC5 side session on “Global Mercury Hotspots.” Hosted by David and his colleagues at the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) and IPEN, the side session shared with decision-makers the findings of a recent scientific report, available here, which found high levels of mercury contamination in marine and freshwater ecosystems around the world.

David, the Executive Director of BRI, is an excellent example of a scientist who, through his work, seeks to work at the boundary between science and policy.

Explaining his work, David is quick to say, “I try very hard to be that unbiased scientist that goes about getting data in an unbiased way.” Trained as a conservation biologist, he readily acknowledges that he has a fundamental interest in the sustainability of human interactions with ecosystems. As a result, he has chosen to research mercury, a compound that is harmful to ecosystems and human health. However, he makes clear, he does not have a policy objective in mind when he formulates his research questions. Nor does a particular policy objective drive his research.

Instead, David says, his goal is to provide policy makers with the best possible information about mercury and its impacts on ecosystems; it is the decision-makers’ job to translate this information into the best possible policy, whatever that may be.

For example, one of David’s recent projects brought together a team of mercury researchers with the goal of compiling scientific findings about mercury in the northeast region of the US. The team then translated these scientific findings into a language and format that is easy for policy makers to fully understand, and shared this information with Congressional staffers and federal agencies in Washington, DC.

In contrast to a policy-advocate, David doesn’t focus on whether the scientific information he is presenting supports a certain policy objective. Nor does he interpret what his findings should mean for policy and decision-making.  “I’m an advocate for scientific information,” not a policy advocate, he explains. And while he thinks that the scientific findings presented during his Global Mercury Hotspots presentation are reason for concern, he adds that, here at the INC5, “I’m not advocating, it’s strange to say, for a stronger mercury policy.”

One concern many members of our MIT team struggle with is how to influence the world of policy with our research without compromising our integrity as unbiased scientists and academics. David recognizes this concern, but says that he feels that the boundary between science-advocate and policy-advocate is quite clear. As long as you’re only advocating for the use of good information in decision-making, you haven’t compromised your position as a credible source of unbiased information. Once you begin to let policy objectives direct your research or start advocating for specific policies, however, you’ve crossed the line into policy advocacy. And, he adds, “there’s no going back.”

So what’s his advice for academic “youngsters”, like us, who are interested in the intersection of science and policy?

First off, don’t be afraid to walk the line between science and policy, David says, just make sure to push for good science and focus on making this information readily available and understandable, rather than advocating for particular policies or regulations.

Second, you don’t need to know everything, and you can’t be an expert in everything. When your work crosses over into a discipline, like public health, that you don’t know well, bring in colleagues to help.

Third, as a scientific expert, people will often corner you to ask what you think the policy implications of your research are; when you respond, keep your opinion out of it and make clear that you are simply interpreting the data you have gathered.

Finally, he says, many scientists fear the media, because they are afraid that the media will misinterpret or skew their research and findings. David says that, when possible, it is preferable to work with journalists that you know and trust. But it’s important to get your findings into the public conversation, so don’t shy away from the media.

To learn more about working at the intersection of science and policy, read Amanda Giang’s Scientist on the Scene profile of Dr. Celia Chen and follow our blog and twitter (@MITmercury) as we report on the final day of the INC5 mercury negotiations.

Daily Roundup for INC5 Day 3—Tuesday, January 16

by Alice Alpert

Day 3 began with snow falling, turning Geneva into a winter wonderland.


Everyone eagerly anticipated the first of the Swiss breaks, to be held in the evening. However, we are no longer “early” in the negotiations, so parties were eager make some progress before the Swiss break festivities began.

Here’s a recap of progress made on different topics.

Products and Processes

The technical articles contact group made progress on setting the mercury concentrations that different types of lightbulbs can contain, although the phase-out dates remain undecided. A breakout group, facilitated by one of the co-chairs, was started to address the controversial dental amalgam issue.

The group is in the midst of working through the annex regarding products and processes that will be exempt from regulation: antiques were removed because they are not being currently manufactured; there will be exceptions for some research and calibration standards (although there is no consensus yet exists on the details); thiomerisol will be allowed as a preservative in vaccines; polyurethane, vinyl chloride monomer, and sodium methylate are still under review. The group discussed the idea of discouraging distribution in commerce as a process provision rather than an outcome provision.

Emissions and Releases

In the morning, a technical group of about 30 attendees was tasked with discussing possible options for characterizing the nature of emissions and releases regulations. The group agreed that it would be useful to narrow the scope of the treaty to major sources, but there was no consensus around the several threshold types discussed (e.g., do you regulate based upon capacity, intensity, or aggregate emissions?).  In the afternoon and evening, the full emissions contact group reconvened and agreed to eliminate certain small-source categories. Into the evening, they were discussing releases, looking to start forming some draft text. Memorably, in response to one delegate’s suggestion that a ton of mercury was a small amount of emissions,  another party replied: “No single raindrop feels responsible for the flood.”

Institutions and Implementation

The treaty objective and definitions were discussed in morning plenary, focusing on whether a dedicated, stand-alone article on health impacts was required or even warranted. The plenary was divided on the issue: one side was of the opinion that a separate health article duplicates other sections of the text and/or impinges upon the effort of the World Health Organization, while the other side sees a stand-alone article as paramount to reaffirming the objective of the treaty. Many NGOs submitted interventions supporting the health article.

Also in plenary, parties showed no movement on how to ensure domestic implementation, with many developing nations saying that a uniform requirement for submitting a plan to meet treaty obligations did not take into account differing national socio-economic conditions. In the evening, a contact group on the implementation and health issues met. Gridlock continued, and a small group decided to work through the night to submit a suitable proposal in the morning.

Financial and Technical Assistance

Much of the work in this area occurred in a small contact group of “friends of the co-chairs”, which continues to discuss Articles 16 and 16bis regarding technical assistance and technology transfer. Article 17—which concerns whether to establish a committee for implementation or for compliance (or both)—was up for discussion in the afternoon plenary session. Several countries voiced the opinion that they would like the membership of and mechanism for decision-making by this group to be specified in the treaty,  rather than by the conference of parties. These specifics will be considered in a contact group set to convene on Day 4.

Supply and Trade, AGSM, and Waste

Work in this area began at 11pm in the technical articles contact group, with a discussion of Article 3 on supply and trade. One of the biggest struggles involved whether existing primary mining should be banned; this decision is still in a deadlock. The group didn’t break until after 1am, and we can expect more work on Day 4.

Highlight of the day

After the second plenary session, the loudspeakers came to life with the song “Under Pressure,” (featuring Freddie Mercury)—just to drive the point home. Then the Swiss break began, providing delicious food, wine, and opportunities for delegates to work out compromises in informal consultations.


The Swiss break also notably featured video footage of traditional Swiss culture, including whipcracking and running around in leaf costumes, in addition to skiing and yodeling. While the Swiss music was questionable, the event did not disappoint. We look forward to our second Swiss break this evening, and hope that the negotiations make significant progress in the meantime.

Mercury’s Health Effects

by Alice Alpert, Ellen Czaika, and Amanda Giang

Pathways to exposure

Although these negotiations are explicitly focused on creating an environmental treaty, mercury’s major significance is its toxicity to humans. When you think about mercury, you probably picture a mercury thermometer. In a thermometer, you can literally see the silvery mercury in its bulb – this is liquid, elemental mercury. If you are absent minded and accidentally drop that mercury thermometer on the bathroom floor, the mercury will spills and form into beads. Although it’s not a good idea to touch this mercury, it is also not easily absorbed by the digestive system in this form.

The more pernicious way for this mercury to enter your body is if it vaporizes, which happens to a small amount of the liquid mercury at room temperature. If you inhale the vapor it can easily pass from your lungs into your blood stream and damage tissues. In fact, vacuuming up the spilled mercury can increase its vaporization and therefore the danger.

In truth, most people will not be exposed to mercury in this form. Instead, people working in chlor-alkali production, mercury mining and refining, thermometer production, dentistry, and in the production of mercury-based chemicals are at increased risk. Although measures have been taken to limit occupational exposure to mercury, many workers may continue to be at risk. Similarly, artisanal or small-scale gold miners are routinely exposed to mercury vapor at very high levels, in the process of burning the mercury-gold amalgam used to extract gold from ore. Indeed, miners and their communities often exhibit clear signs of mercury poisoning.

Another important pathway for mercury exposure is through eating seafood. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) (Section 2.4, paragraph 128), for many people this is the main pathway for human exposure to methylmercury. Exposure happens through the process of bioaccumulation and biomagnification. In brief, mercury is methylated to methylmercury (CH3HgX) by bacteria in the ocean and then accumulates in fish and marine mammals. Long-lived predatory fish at the top of the food-chain, such as swordfish, tilefish, shark, and tuna, can accumulate dangerously high concentrations of mercury. The US EPA lists guidelines for safe consumption of fish. Women who are pregnant or who could become pregnant should be especially careful about eating mercury contaminated fish because the mercury can be harmful to the developing fetus.

In addition, exposure could happen through dental amalgams. Elemental mercury is used in dental amalgam, and it can be ingested or its vapors can be inhaled. This is a contentious issue in the negotiations. The American Dental Association and the US Environmental Protection Agency state that mercury in dental amalgam is safe, while a report by the WHO (p.11) states that dental amalgam is a significant source of mercury exposure in those who have mercury fillings. We encourage you to look into the reports if you are concerned about this issue. For a solid overview of all pathways, see the WHO report on mercury exposure.

How and why does mercury make us so sick?

The most serious effects of elemental mercury vapor concern the nervous system, including tremors, erethism (a neurological disorder characterized by irritability and shyness), insomnia, muscle weakness, and memory loss. At especially high concentrations, the kidneys, thyroid, and pulmonary system can be affected. Similarly to elemental mercury, mercury in its organic form, methylmercury, has serious neurological effects, including neurobehavioral deficits, neuronal loss, loss of muscle movement, hearing loss, paralysis, and death.

Why is mercury so toxic for the nervous system? There are two specific processes: first, elemental mercury and methylmercury can easily cross the blood-brain barrier and once in the brain, can be oxidized to the mercuric ion (Hg2+), which cannot cross back across the barrier. Instead, mercury is trapped in the brain, where the second process begins, neurotoxin by excitotoxicity. What? Okay, we’ll slow down and explain these multi-syllabic words: in studies of rats, Hg2+ inhibits glutamine and glutamate transport, causing receptors for these molecules to become overexcited. This causes a large influx of the calcium ion into the cell, which activates enzymes that can lead to the neuron’s death, and thus the serious neurological effects. This second process is the reason why mercury is so toxic.

Mercury crucially effects developing fetuses. In the same way that methylmercury can cross the blood-brain barrier, it can also pass through the placenta from a mother to her fetus and then to the developing fetus’ brain. As a neurotoxin, methylmercury can also damage its nervous system, and in fact mercury has lasting negative effects when fetuses are exposed to concentrations at levels that are only 10%-20% of toxic levels for adults.

Babies born to women who consumed significant amounts of methylmercury while pregnant display symptoms similar to cerebral palsy, including delayed walking and talking, altered muscle tone and reflexes. Tragically, these impairments are permanent and affected will suffer from these impairments for their entire life. In fact, recently published research estimates that IQ reductions due to chronic, low-level fetal mercury neurotoxicity costs the European Union alone € 8-9 billion euros per year. Clearly, there are significant social and economic impacts from mercury exposure, particularly for the young.

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!