Global Environmental Governance – Where Does Mercury Fit?

by Amanda Giang

The world of global environmental agreements is starting to fill up. Over the past 50 years, the international community has come together to put in place 500 treaties over 1100 treaties—or multi-lateral environmental agreements (MEAs) in policy-wonk speak—that address the atmosphere, oceans and water, land, chemicals, hazardous substances and waste, and biodiversity.  (Whether they’ve been effective is another question.)

So where will the mercury treaty fit amongst its MEA brethren? What gaps does it fill, and how does it link with other treaties?

Standing alone

In a previous post, Philip Wolfe and I described why mercury requires an international treaty in the first place—it’s a global threat that doesn’t follow geopolitical borders, and therefore addressing it requires international cooperation. But what form should this treaty take? Some of the best known MEAs, like those that address climate change and ozone depleting substances, follow a convention-protocol structure. These agreements start with a framework convention, which basically says, “We think this is a global issue and want to address it,” and are then followed by protocols, which outline how lofty policy goals might actually be achieved through practical steps (e.g., the Kyoto protocol set up targets and timetables for carbon dioxide emissions reductions). The framework convention serves as an umbrella, and guides all the protocols that sit below it. In contrast, the mercury treaty is going to be freestanding. Because it does not sit under a guiding framework, there is not necessarily anything that dictates how it should relate to other MEAs. Since the relationship between individual MEAs is independent and non-hierarchical, no treaty supersedes another. So how should issue overlaps be managed?

This question is particularly important for the mercury treaty and how it relates to the existing set of treaties that address hazardous chemicals (or the chemicals regime, if you want to be fancy) because many chemical regime treaties are “issue-centric”, whereas the mercury treaty will be “chemical-centric”. For example, the chemicals regime includes: the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (which regulates hazardous waste) and the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (which regulates the trade of hazardous substances). How will mercury-specific waste provisions fit with those set out in the Basel Convention? To what extent can the existing machinery of these other treaties (like research centres on hazardous waste) be used for mercury-specific issues? What happens if there are countries that will be party to the mercury treaty, but are not party to the Basel Convention (for instance the US)? Similar questions apply for trade. These are some key institutional issues that will have to be resolved this week during negotiation.

Cross-cutting themes and policy legacy

As Philip and I mentioned in a previous post, with every MEA, there is the potential for policy legacy. Any decision you make about an issue that cuts across multiple regulatory regimes may set a (dangerous?) precedent, so delegates tend to tread lightly when it comes to the following issues:

  • Common but differentiated responsibilities: All parties may be willing to contribute to solving the mercury problem, but not all parties are equally responsible for causing it, nor are they equally able to address it (in terms of financial and technical resources). How should the responsibilities be divided? The Kyoto Protocol under the Framework Convention for Climate Change established one way to think about this—with Annex I countries (mostly industrialized) subject to targets and timetables, and other countries not—but there are many critics to this approach. Will the mercury treaty take a different slice at emissions reduction?
  • Financial and technical assistance: Check out this post for a detailed discussion on this issue.

As the week progresses, we’ll report on how some of these institutional linkages and cross-cutting issues solidify in the treaty text. In the meantime, if you’re just dying to learn more about the exciting world of environmental governance, check out this book: Global Governance of Hazardous Chemicals: Challenges of Multilevel Management by Henrik Selin (MIT Press, 2010).

 

5 thoughts on “Global Environmental Governance – Where Does Mercury Fit?

    1. Leah Stokes

      Thanks Bill Clark! You’re right — there are a lot of environmental treaties. But, do they accomplish their goals? Well, I suppose that’s a different question about effectiveness.

      Reply
      1. William Clark

        On effectiveness: Indeed it is another question. But we actually know something (not much, but something) about effectiveness. Here’s one recent summary and guide to the literature: Young, O. R. (2011). Effectiveness of international environmental regimes: Existing knowledge, cutting-edge themes, and research strategies. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(50), 19853-19860. doi:10.1073/pnas.1111690108. How does the mercury regime measure up to the characteristics of (relatively) successful treaties?

        Reply
        1. Leah Stokes

          Yes – I’ve read that article. It makes great points. Thanks for sharing it again.

          The Executive Director of UNEP, Achim Steiner, made an interesting comment about this today during the plenary, where he argued that treaties will be effective if they meet two tests.

          First, the treaty must be reasonable and in the interests of parties. Individual states will not ratify treaties that result in a negative outcome for their country, when they evaluate the agreement from a cost-benefit perspective.

          Second, treaties need to be substantive and must address the environmental problem. He encouraged parties in the coming days to ensure that the eventual text be meaningful in addressing mercury emissions and mercury exposure.

          Finally, he concluded arguing that international treaties are only a compliment to existing domestic regulations. In the case of mercury, this is certainly true, since many large emitters have already begun to phase out mercury use and control mercury emissions. Notably, China has created regulations since these international negotiations began in 2009. In this sense, treaties’ ability to create international norms, shared standards and monitoring processes is perhaps as important as their “legally binding” character.

          Reply

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