How to Regulate Mercury in 6 Easy Steps (Part 1 of 4—more to come!)

By Amanda Giang and Philip Wolfe

Amanda and Philip, here, with a 4-part handy guide for implementing a global treaty on mercury.  We’ll be walking you through the problems, issues, and potential pitfalls of carrying out a global regulation and how this new regulation will interface with already existing treaties, protocols, and institutions.

Let’s say you want to create a global treaty regulating mercury… easy, right? Here’s a guide to give you the best shot of getting that done.

1.  Prove that the substance poses a real threat, and that the threat is global in nature. Good news. Somebody has already done that legwork for you. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) produced a mercury assessment in 2008 that summarized the state of science on mercury and its impacts. It turns out, mercury is toxic and bio-accumulative (i.e., a real threat!), and it can be transported miles away from where it is emitted (i.e., a global problem!). Done.

2.  Decide upon the scope of the regulation. Are you only going to regulate current mercury emissions or are you also going to regulate the use of mercury in commercial products? Do you regulate mercury waste in the trash stream and, if so, how? How do you control mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining? How do you regulate mercury trade? Defining the scope of the regulation is essentially the meat and potatoes (or the seitan and broccoli, for our vegan metaphor friends) of the treaty. Our MIT team has broken down the current scope into three primary areas: 1) emissions, 2) products and processes, and 3) small-scale gold mining, waste, and trade. Other members of our team will be covering each of those issues in more detail over the following days.

3.  Get somebody to pay for the regulation. The goal of the regulation is to benefit society over time. However, it often takes significant investment of time and resources to achieve that societal benefit. And investment of time and resources are, well, an investment: they don’t come free! Additionally, when countries with starkly different economies are involved in the same treaty, their level of investment and benefits from the regulation will often differ significantly. For example, Suriname and Sweden will most likely require different types and levels of support in order to effectively limit their mercury emissions, and the benefits of the treaty to each country will be felt in different ways. Some countries will need financial support to comply with strict goals. Others will have to pay for this support. This raises the often-contentious question of how should the costs be divided when different countries are responsible for different shares of the global pollution burden – now and historically? Alice and Julie will be covering the financial assistance issue in depth over the next week, as international negotiators try to reach agreement on this tricky subject.

4. Design how the regulation will be enacted in practice. Once you have identified the problem, you have a good sense of its extent, and you think you’ll be able to pay to fix it, how do you get countries to actually follow your regulation in practice? This is the “implementation problem”. You need to develop steps by which countries can follow through with the treaty, as well as methods that allow you to hold those countries accountable to do so. This area, the arena of institutions and implementation, is where we (Amanda and Philip) will be focusing our attention over the next week. In Parts 2 through 4 of this blog series, we’ll examine a variety of issues and concerns related to the implementation problem, different practical strategies for implementing a global treaty, and the views of different parties at the INC5 on issues related to implementation.

5. Negotiate! You’ve made it through steps 1 through 4 unscathed, but here’s where it gets tricky. While you were designing this treaty the best way you see fit, it turns out there were 100 other countries doing the exact same thing. Here’s why INC5 is such an important forum. Each country may agree that mercury is a problem, but no country is going to agree to the treaty if they think signing it will make them worse off then not signing it. Hence, all of those important little details you thought you had settled in step 2 or step 3 are back on the table.  We told you there were 6 easy steps involved in regulating mercury, but we may have forgotten to tell you that once you start negotiating, those steps become iterative, and reaching agreement among different countries may not be easy.

6. Sign, ratify, implement, hold accountable, review, and revise.  This is the goal! We’re hoping that by the end of the INC5, we’ll have a global mercury treaty ready to go.  However, even after signing, there is still work to be done. Funds need to be dispersed, progress needs to be monitored, and rules need to be reviewed as more information becomes available and the world changes over time. Furthermore, you’ll have to work with already existing institutions (the World Bank? the World Health Organization?) and within the bounds of already existing treaties (The Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals? The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal?). Amanda and Philip will also be discussing and looking at these institutional linkages with respect to INC5.

There you have it! Easy right? In Part 2 of “How to Regulate Mercury in 6 Easy Steps”, we’ll take a more in-depth look at the “implementation problem” and explore the kinds of questions that come up when trying to implement a global treaty.

In the meantime, continue to follow our blog and track us on twitter (@MITMercury)

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.

One thought on “How to Regulate Mercury in 6 Easy Steps (Part 1 of 4—more to come!)

  1. Andy

    This is a perfect intro to mercury regulation for a layperson like me. Plenty of factual content for significant learning, not so much that I got information overload, packaged with an entertaining bowl of seitan and broccoli. Thanks Phil and Amanda!


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