How to Regulate Mercury in 6 Easy Steps (Part 2 of 4): A practical approach to implementation in practice

by Philip Wolfe and Amanda Giang

Philip and Amanda here with a handy guide for implementing a global treaty on mercury. In Part 1, we gave a brief walk through the overall process of developing a global mercury policy. In Part 2, we look at what issues are important when it comes to deciding how to implement a global regulation.

It is all well and good to acknowledge that mercury poses a problem, but it is another thing entirely to actually do something about it. Even if we can get everyone to agree about what the most important threats to health and safety are, we still have to work out how exactly we are going to address these threats, and how we are going to make sure that people follow through. Furthermore, we have set all of this up in a way that is feasible for everyone.  We referred to this issue in Part 1 as the “implementation problem” (it sounds like an old-timey euphemism, we know, but it is helpful way of framing the issue).

The “implementation problem” is complex, but thankfully it is not intractable! We think that one nice way to approach it is by breaking up these interlocking issues into five overarching questions.

1. How will the convention be implemented in practice?

This question addresses all of the procedural details. Who oversees what? Who is in charge of funds? Who gets to vote? When does the treaty enter into force (i.e., how many countries need to ratify the treaty domestically before implementation starts)? A lot of these issues may seem pretty inconsequential (or bureaucratically, mind-numbingly boring, to put it mildly), but don’t be fooled! It’s not as easy as simply setting dates and boilerplate international policy cutting-and-pasting. For one, we need to be concerned about policy legacy. When parties make choices in one environmental regulation, it can set a precedent for future regulations with large consequences; likewise, we have to look at whether policy-makers are making smart choices here or if they are just doing something because it worked before. This question can also have important political and equity implications, especially when it comes to distributing oversight and funding responsibilities.

2. How can the convention ensure effectiveness?

The world doesn’t just make treaties as an excuse for a bunch of important people to practice their signatures. The goal is to solve a global problem, and to do it as effectively as possible. Trouble is, there’s often a tradeoff between feasibility and effectiveness. Make a regulation too stringent, and it becomes impossible. Make it too lenient, and suddenly you have spent a lot of time making a policy that does not adequately address the environmental problems at hand. Effectiveness is about balancing these needs both for individual parties and for the global community as a whole.

As science policy enthusiasts, we’re also particularly interested in how one actually goes about monitoring and measuring effectiveness, and how science can inform decisions about these activities. What do the indicators specified in the treaty actually tell us about the state of the environmental problem at hand, and are they scientifically justified?

3. How can the convention ensure compliance?

Imagine this: The nation of Theoreticalistan produces a lot of mercury emissions through its widget-making industry. All of the other countries of the world bear the burden of these emissions. The world would see benefits of $100 million if Theoreticalistan invested in clean-widget technology. However, Theoreticalistan is a developing nation and does not have the infrastructure to develop this technology, which would cost $50 million. If the world could support Theoreticalistan through capacity building and technology transfer, everyone could end up better off! Theoreticalistan gets an improved industry (funded at least in part by outside support) and the world sees the benefits in mercury reduction ($100 million benefit – $50 million cost of development = $50 million net benefit). However, how does the world make sure Theoreticalistan keeps up its end of the bargain? And how can Theoreticalistan be sure it will get appropriate support? As with effectiveness, it will take monitoring, inventorying, and evaluating progress at each step of the way to achieve this. How we embed these systems into the convention is an important factor in the treaty’s ultimate success. If you’re interested in this topic, there’s a growing body of literature that talks about compliance systems and active compliance management: check out Antonia Chayes et al.’s (1995) “Active Compliance Management in Environmental Treaties” and Peter Sand’s (2001) “A Century of Green Lessons: the contribution of nature conservation regimes to global governance.

4. How will this treaty interface with other international agreements and bodies?

Countries are already a part of complex inter-woven fabric of bilateral and international agreements, and that space is getting more crowded and more confusing every year. Any mercury convention will have to interface with these existing regulations and institutions. The key tension is how to define an agreement space that encompasses as much of the problem as possible while not violating or stepping on the toes of other agreements. Some of these agreements may be directly related to hazardous substances and pollutants, or they could be broadly related to economics and trade. Here are just a few treaties and intergovernmental bodies that we expect to be relevant to the mercury convention:

For more info on these linkages, watch for Amanda’s forthcoming blog post “Global environmental governance – where does mercury fit?”

5. How will this convention appropriately address individual parties’ conceptions of sovereignty?

Different countries will have different domestic laws. While it may be feasible for the United States to pass a law that says “All widget-making must be mercury free,” it may not be possible for the government of, say, Theoreticalistan to do the same. Likewise, individual countries, especially those with significant economic or military power, may be loath to give up that power to an international body. The sovereignty issue has received national attention in the United States recently when the Senate failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities after Senate Republicans claimed that such a convention would impinge on our sovereignty. A good primer on different sides can be found at the New York Times Room for Debate.

Still with us? Maybe? A little bit? Don’t lose hope. It’s a tough road from problem to treaty, and there are myriad difficulties and quagmires to wade through along the way. But if you’ve made it through Parts 1 and 2, you’re pretty much an expert already. In Part 3 we’re going to introduce and define some of the biggest concepts and themes we expect to come up during the negotiations in Geneva.

Stay tuned!

Amanda Giang studies how we quantify the benefits of environmental policies in the face of uncertainty. She is terrified of Legos. Philip Wolfe studies how people make policy decisions in one environmental domain (like air quality) when there are tradeoffs in another domain (like noise pollution). His spirit animal is the puffin.

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