The Minamata Convention will be signed this week in Kumamoto, Japan. Stay tuned to the Mercury Science and Policy at MIT blog for real-time updates from the preparatory meeting and the diplomatic conference.

If you’re interested in some of the background on the convention, check out the issue overview posts that the MIT Mercury team posted during the final negotiating session back in January. Also, you can follow us at our twitter account @MITMercury and #MITMercury.


Will the new global mercury treaty be effective?

After four years of negotiations, delegates from more than 140 countries met last January to finalize the first global treaty to mitigate and prevent mercury pollution, the Minamata Convention. A new paper out from MIT Mercury looks at what the impact of the treaty will be. The bottom line? Globally, the treaty should avoid the future mercury increases that would otherwise occur but more aggressive action would be needed to decrease concentrations. Also, new science and analysis is needed to help policy-makers figure out the reason for environmental mercury changes. Read more at MIT News: Will the new global mercury treaty be effective? – MIT News Office.

The new paper, in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, is available here.

Mercury NOMADSS travel to Smyrna, TN!

Greetings from sunny Smyrna, TN, where for the last few weeks we (Noelle Selin, Amanda Giang and Shaojie Song) have been participating in a mission to measure mercury and other pollutants in the atmosphere. NOMADSS is the title of the airplane-based campaign, which stands for “Nitrogen, Oxidants, Mercury and Aerosol Distributions, Sources and Sinks.” It’s part of the larger Southeast Atmosphere study that’s investigating air quality in the southeast U.S. this summer. We are using our models to predict where we’re likely to find pollution, and to interpret data from the last several days to guide planning.

If you’re interested in following all of the science going on this summer, check out the Southeast Atmosphere Study home page, follow @SAS_Operations on twitter. There’s also a great blog on another component of the Southeast Atmosphere Study, the Southern Oxidant and Aerosol Study. Stay tuned for further updates from the field!

For mercury-specific updates, stay tuned to #MITMercury.


Reflections on the Minamata Convention process (from Leah)

By: Leah Stokes

The negotiations ended a little less than a month ago. Life is back to normal. No more early morning wake ups and late night sessions with delegates from around the globe. The treaty text is finalized, with just the diplomatic convention pending. When I reflect on the final round of negotiations in Geneva, a few thoughts have come to mind.

1) How little the media covered the negotiations. Compared to any round of the climate talks, the mercury treaty largely went ignored. This despite the 15 million people who rely on mercury for small-scale mining, and the 100 million people in turn who rely on these miners. Mining gold with mercury contributes 25% of total global gold production. And using mercury for this purpose is probably the biggest source of acute exposure. To me, this is a compelling story for any news organization. We’re talking about the fate of a group of people that amounts to several large cities. Yet, the world stayed largely silent. The lack of media coverage, in my opinion, probably helped to water down the strength of the agreement.

2) How much the text’s ambition declined over time. At the beginning of the week, there was the possibility that the treaty would meaningfully address emissions, whether from coal plants or ASGM. But by week’s end, the text was allowing countries to take five years just to inventory their emissions, let alone begin to control them. I understand that building an inventory takes considerable time; but we need to view this agreement from a longer time frame. These countries started talks in the early 2000s. Countries have already had a decade to get a handle on their emissions. It’s time to start decreasing emissions now. Unfortunately, this agenda item got dropped along with thresholds, ambitious timetables for reductions and clear targets. These issues, instead, were punted to the first round of the Conference of the Parties (COP) after the treaty is official signed this fall.

3) How much the treaty is a process, not a destination. It was tempting to view these negotiations as the final period on a run-on sentence that needed to end. Instead, they were just a mid-point in a long term project to reduce emissions. Getting countries to focus on the mercury problem is like peering through a prism to see the way the particular angle focuses the problem. I was surprised, for example, when ASGM emissions were deemed larger than coal emissions at UNEP’s scientific briefing at the beginning of the week. In my mind, this changed the priorities for countries, and made mercury emissions even harder to reduce. Future meetings will no doubt update the picture we have on the nature of the mercury problem and how well countries are addressing it. While finalizing a treaty is a noteworthy moment, international environmental negotiations are truly a multi-year decision-making process, with scientific uncertainty and shifting goals. It’s not over yet. And it’s possible the Minamata Convention will grow sea legs over time, allowing countries to steadily reduce mercury emissions on a more ambitious timeline once the treaty is implemented.

Its own time zone: A reflection on INC5 (from Ellen)

The Mercury Negotiation at the United Nations in Geneva existed in its own time zone. At first I thought it was jet lag, but the Centre Internationale de Conferences Geneve (CICG), which housed the convention, must be in its own time zone; there are few other explanations.

Never before had I seen a meeting be scheduled to start at 1:30am. It started at 2:30, as if the delegates had tacitly agreed upon a daylight-savings-like clock change. I thought my watch must be wrong.

But, my watch is Swiss made. I bought it 17 years ago in Lucerne, Switzerland. I’ve only had to change the battery once. It is a simple, reliable time keeping device, or so I thought. My Swiss watch does not work at the mercury negotiations at the UN’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.  The irony.

I didn’t immediately come to this conclusion, however. The problems with my watch developed slowly.  I didn’t notice anything wrong with it during the first Plenary session on the first day. Perhaps that was because I was fascinated by the simultaneous interpretation into 6 languages and by testing my French and Spanish, before returning to my native English (channel 1 on the headsets).  Or, maybe my attention was occupied in trying to match the delegates faces with their voices, or even harder – to their tone as conveyed by an interpreter’s voice.

UntitledThe first Plenary was exciting to me because it was my first Plenary at an international negotiation. However, I quickly picked up on the pattern. Every delegate commenced his/her remarks with compliments to the Swiss’ hospitality, intentions to work with the other delegates to reach an agreement, and niceties to Chair Fernando Lugris. It was only towards the end of their moment on the floor that they spoke their country’s position. My watch worked fine.

It was during the first evening’s session of the contact group on selected technical articles that I started noticing the first signs of trouble with my watch.  They worked until 11pm.  I don’t mean they worked late, grad student style: lounging in chairs in comfy clothes, a laptop apiece. They remained in business attire in a facilitated meeting, with the co-chair allocating speaking time. I couldn’t believe they were still so formal so late at night.

The next morning, I thought my watch was outright lying. It couldn’t be time to get up already. My teammate, Bethanie and I hustled through breakfast to get to the CICG for the contact group’s morning session only to find the break out room empty.

From there my watch just got worse.  One night, though I can’t remember which one because my calendar stopped working too as the days all blended together with only a few hours sleep in between, the contact group co-chair announced a five minute break. Forty-five minutes later, by my watch, the delegates weren’t back in the conference room. Does one CICG minute equal 9 minutes on my watch?

But a pattern was emerging. The, now nightly, “five-minute breaks” coincided with the closing of the conference center’s café. Furthermore, the contact group adjourned reliably close to the start of each of the Swiss Breaks, with their wonderful offerings of cultural food and drinks.  And, my body clock was operating in a time zone somewhere over the Atlantic.

When the contact group reconvened after a coffee break or a Swiss break, the text in Articles and Annexes was different or the group would easily agree to text that had been contentious before the break. What was happening during these breaks?

Unfortunately, as observers, we weren’t privy to these informal discussions. However, the co-chairs referred to meetings with delegates and talking ideas around. Pairing this with the small working groups they’d send out to address particular technical issues like the threshold of mercury allowable in different kinds of lightbulbs, and my watch’s time warp became productive.

It’s not that time was nonexistent in the CICG. Chair Lugris and the co-chairs of the contact group on selected technical articles frequently reminded the delegates of the ticking clock.  The message in the Plenary was humorous and musical as Chair Lugris took to ending each plenary session with Queen’s “Under Pressure.”

These reminders became more effective as the final day approached. Delegates started including some variation of the comments, “in the interest of flexibility” or “to keep things moving along” in their remarks.

Somewhere out in the edges of the INC5 time warp an agreement was forming. Was the shared sleeplessness and Swiss cheese and chocolate creating a cohesion among these delegates from roughly 140 countries? Was the emerging agreement something they can bring back to a supportive reception in their home countries? In some of the delegates’ remarks, this two-level game was very evident. Delegates were constantly balancing their commitments to their home country’s interests with the pressure to reach agreement at INC5.

The text was formally adopted at around 7am on the final day of the INC5 convention, which was not the early start it sounds, but rather a late finish. Sleep-deprived but excited delegates expressed their congratulations and gratitude to each other and their hope for the treaty. As the blur of INC5 receded into the new reality of text to be brought to home countries, the treaty signed, and then ratified, the sense of accomplishment was palpable. Although not everyone was happy with the result, most particularly the representatives of the Minamata Victims felt the treaty was not strong enough as the IPEN NGO expressed through a poignant speech.

Somewhere during the adopting of each article and annex in turn, my watch started working again. During the celebratory party my watch clearly told me that 8am is too early for cake and Champagne and that I needed sleep.

By the time I stood at the Geneva train station the next morning, my watch said the same time as the beautiful Mondaine station clock, and exactly coincided with the trains’ arrival. I had left the INC5 time zone.Untitled

Reflections on INC5 (from Bethanie)

I will happily admit that going into the INC5 I probably knew the least out of our group about international negotiation. I study the chemistry of bacteria in the ‘twilight zone’ of the ocean. Consequently, my research does not directly intersect with policy often. So, I really did not know what to expect. I chose to cover mercury added products and manufacturing processes. I figured that my chemistry background and familiarity with synthesis processes would make this issue more accessible to me than say, covering financial assistance and capacity building. Before the trip I inhaled UN assessments, technical reports, and a few journal articles on the life cycles of mercury added products like compact fluorescent light bulbs. As my fellow MIT students discussed salience and legitimacy, words that I am still grasping the full meaning of, I mentally prepared myself to wander outside of my laboratory comfort zone and into the territory of global policy.

To my surprise the INC5 was not that intimidating after all. I probably helped that I had a bright, insightful posse of MIT students surrounding me. But it was amazingly easy to become enthralled watching delegates try to strike a balance between economic feasibility and environmental stewardship, trying to decipher the hidden agendas of each nation, and speculating as to whether a treaty with teeth would be the outcome of the negotiations. Below are a few of my observations

1)     Negotiations are a marathon, not a race. Even though all the really exciting stuff happened at the end of the week as the adoption of the text drew near, I caught the negotiation bug on Monday. I couldn’t pull myself away from contact group sessions that went until 1 AM even though the discussion was moving at a glacial pace. I was afraid I’d miss something important or a brilliantly funny analogy. I also couldn’t bear the thought of being late to Plenary in the morning, where we’d find out all the action that had occurred in other contact groups. So sleep became a rarity and by the end of the week I was exhausted. I’m not sure that it was totally worth it as I was so drained after the adoption of the text that I couldn’t even enjoy the champagne. But I did gain a better understanding of the physical toll negotiations take on the delegates.

2)     As I was often observing negotiations until the wee hours of the morning, I found out that Geneva is a beautiful city at night. I’m sure she is just as wondrous in the day time but Lake Geneva at night and the way that the evening is ten times brighter with snow on the ground is enchanting.

3)     I have a sneaky suspicion that debating whether to use the word ‘should’ or ‘shall’ in this or that paragraph is a stalling technique. In every contact group there were a few hour-or-more debates over word choice. In my imagination, a delegate in the financial assistance contact group is texting a delegates in emissions contact group, “Use the shall/should tactic NOW! Stall agreement on thresholds. I’m on the verge of securing $ for tech assistance.”

4)     The young guns were well represented in the delegations. Many key negotiators were under 40 which was inspiring to see. The people in the technical articles contact group became very familiar with my favorite young negotiator, Diogo Coelho from Brazil. Watching him time and time again stand up and represent the interests of Brazil (as well as other developing nations) as the more seasoned negotiators dominated the floor, one would never have guess that it was his first negotiation except perhaps because he doesn’t look a day over 25.

5)     The asynchronous nature of science’s ability to influence policy became very apparent to me. Good science does take time. But we can’t wait until the science is conclusive to start making policy; it would be too late. As a consequence, the policy decisions that we end up making may not be effective considering the actual nature of the problem. The 2013 Global Mercury Assessment was released while we were at the conference. New data shows that ASGM is a much larger contributor to emissions than previously thought, larger than coal. Imagine if that data had been in the 2009 assessment. How different would the adopted text be? Perhaps ASGM would have been the focus instead of emissions. How do we make international policy more adaptive to new scientific findings?

I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to witness the negotiation and adoption of an environmental treaty firsthand. UNEP is no longer this black box to me that you stick science into and somehow magically you get global policy out. I feel as though I have a clearer understanding of how the negotiation process works, the crucial role science plays, and the difficulty of getting an effective treaty. I also learned so much from my MIT cohort about policy, literature, Twitter, sad BBC mini-series, and Canadian politics.  I walk away from this experience with renewed interest in the intersection of science and policy, the influence of blogs, and the role of my generation.

Insights from INC5 (from Danya)

by Danya Rumore

It’s a little more than a week after the completion of INC5, and I find myself reflecting on the insights I gained from the UN mercury negotiations in Geneva as I travel back to Cambridge via train. That brings me to my first important insight:

  • In stark contrast to public transportation in the US, Swiss trains and buses are—true to the stereotype—perfectly on time. If the train is scheduled to depart at 9:13am, you better be on the train by 9:12:45am. As fellow team member Leah Stokes unhappily learned, if the bus is more than a minute or two late, it probably won’t come for a while: there is almost certainly a crisis on the bus line.

As I look back, I am amazed by how intense the week of INC5 was. Hence, insight number two:

  • Being a delegate at international environmental negotiations is not for the faint of heart. Not only is it critical that delegates be on their game, constantly aware of what is going on in the negotiations and ensuring that they are advocating for their nation’s or organization’s interests, but they also end up basically living in the convention center for the week. After the first day, the negotiations generally continued late into the night or early into the following morning, making for 14+ hour days. Add to this the jet lag most delegates put up with as they travel from place to place, and you’ve got a pretty daunting, albeit potentially rewarding, job description.

In sum, our experience at INC5 convinced me that being a delegate might not be for me. However, watching the INC5 play out, talking to scientists on the scene such as David Evers and Celia Chen, and constantly reflecting on the negotiations with my MIT team members made me ever-more committed to working at the intersection between science and policy. Another take-away from INC5:

  • Effectively integrating scientific knowledge into policy making, particularly at the international level, remains a significant challenge. We need people who can effectively “advocate” for the appropriate use of science in informing political decisions.

While at INC5, I also discovered that, even if the negotiations seem to progress at a glacial pace, you really must remain attentive and pay careful attention to things as they play out. First off, if you don’t, you might miss some excellent analogies and metaphors (such as the nations’ “tangoing” metaphor during a technical working group session). More importantly, it only takes one delegate saying one sentence (such as “we’d like to strike ‘mercury compounds’ from that sentence”—see Mark’s and my blog for more about this) to entirely change the dynamic of the debate. Since careful attention to the proceedings is really quite important if you are to make sense of the seemingly slow but yet dynamic negotiations, here’s another insight:

  • If you hope to have even the faintest idea of what is really going on in the negotiations, don’t offer to manage the team’s blog and/or communications strategy. While I was entirely honored to be a blog manager for our team and honestly wouldn’t have had it otherwise, I finally had to accept that I would be lost for at least most of the discussions. Thank you to my team for keeping me abreast of what was really happening!
Sweet energy for delegates

Sweet energy for delegates

Another theme that stands out as I reflect on the week of INC5 is the amazing hospitality of the Swiss. From the much-anticipated Swiss Breaks (which far exceeded our expectations with fire-melted raclette, ceviche, wine, and even Heidi and Peter) to the omnipresent and much appreciated “Sweet energy for delegates” (i.e., little chocolates freely available throughout the week) to the surprise late night pizza and sandwich deliveries that sustained delegates as they negotiated into the wee hours: the Swiss definitely hosted a good INC5 party.

Raclette at a Swiss Break

Raclette at a Swiss Break

In addition to being entirely enjoyable, this hospitality appeared to serve the very critical function of bringing people together outside of the formal negotiations, building personal relationships to facilitate cooperation and collaboration, and keeping people feeling energized and appreciated so that they were willing to push through the late nights and challenging hours of the negotiations.  Another take-away:

  • Many important compromises and agreements are made outside of formal deliberations. Additionally, getting people to converse in informal settings can lead to the generation of new alternatives and possible solutions. Therefore, host nations should seriously consider throwing a good negotiations party.

A final and perhaps most important insight from our INC5 experience has less to do with what we took away from the negotiations and more to do with what we brought. Our team of ten graduate students and Professor Noelle Selin was utterly fantastic, as was our support crew back in Cambridge. Through this experience, I have developed a new cohort of brilliant, passionate colleaguesIMG_1718 and inspirational friends. I will forever appreciate the many things I learned from my conversations with fellow team members (did you know that polar bears’ fur is transparent?). I also fully intend to follow up on the crazy but amazing ideas we collaboratively generated (Science Train, anyone?).  And I can hardly believe how much fun we had—highlights include: making snow angels with fellow team members sometime after midnight while in our professional attire; laughing out loud with every reply to our “INC5 Playlist” email chain; and ongoing Heidi-related hilarity. In sum, a final point of reflection:

  • In negotiations—and in general—your team matters. Be thankful when you’ve got a good one.

Thanks to the National Science Foundation for funding this amazing learning and professional development experience, to Professor Noelle Selin for making it happen, to our amazing MIT Mercury team for all of the shared learning and fun times, to everyone who has offered their support and encouragement and/or has read our blog throughout the last couple of weeks.

Thoughts and reflections (from Philip)

This blog has been an incredible opportunity to share information about environmental policy and science from the broad institutional frameworks to the minute details of mercury chemical transport pathways. However, in 60 or so blog posts, it’s hard to encapsulate and communicate even a small percentage of the knowledge gained in preparing for and attending INC5. Instead of attempting a comprehensive summary, I’ll leave a few stray thoughts and reflections on the last few weeks.

I have always been allergic to chocolate, but never have I been so acutely aware of my immune system’s deficiencies than I was in Geneva.  Chocolate is everywhere in Switzerland, and apparently it is delicious.  Grocery stores have entire chocolate sections, and the flavors available range from the expected (hazelnut) to the bizarre (wasabi).

Reading peer-reviewed journal papers is insufficient when it comes to learning science policy. In the first day alone we saw scientists, government agencies, and NGOs use documentary film, personal narratives, long form journalism, and collective demonstrations as ways to share information. In the negotiations themselves, rhetorical metaphors were often more common than mentions of scientific models.

There is no such thing as a one-off negotiation in environmental policy. Every decision and every word choice in the treaty text was scrutinized for how it reflected historical precedence or how it would used to set a precedent in future treaties. When carving out a space for mercury regulation, linkages of concern are not just to already existing institutions but also to institutions that may exist in the future.

Perhaps someone needs to apply the inter- and cross-disciplinary systems-level approach in science and engineering to international policy and governance systems.  Does it make sense to silo treaties into bins like “trade” or “human rights” when these issues are more closely interwoven? The dedicated article to health aspects in the mercury treaty, while its language may not be strong enough to compel parties to act, speaks to the need for a more comprehensive approach to environmental policy.

A Burger King Whopper is the cheapest meal at the Geneva Airport, and it will cost you $16. There is no dollar menu. Start saving now.

The treaty text does not adequately communicate the hard work, compromises, and nuanced deliberations that went into its crafting. As UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said after the text was adopted, “If people could see how hard delegates worked, maybe they would have a better appreciation for international treaties.” I agree with him, but I think it raises a question often asked of scientists: whose job is it to communicate this work?

I have a great idea for a science documentary/reality television show/educational experience. I’m not going to give out all the details because I don’t want somebody to steal it, but the title of the show is “SCIENCE TRAIN!” If you would like to produce it, feel free to contact me.

Supply and Trade, Waste, and ASGM in the Final Agreement

by Mark Staples and Danya Rumore

During INC5, we were responsible for the interconnected issues of mercury supply and trade (Article 3), waste (Article 13), and artisanal and small-scale gold mining, or ASGM (Article 9). These articles were introduced in plenary early on and, given disagreement about the text, were quickly sent to the contact group on selected technical articles for revision. It took until mid-afternoon on Friday for the contact group to reach resolution on these topics, but an agreement was reached. Here is a summary of how these issues evolved over the course of the week and an overview of what made it into the agreed-upon treaty text.

Supply, Trade, and Waste

In our previous issue overview blogs on mercury supply and trade and waste, we anticipated that discussions on these issues would focus on 1) whether and how to regulate primary mercury mining operations; 2) the identification of existing stocks of mercury and mercury compound; and 3) the integration of concepts from the Basel Convention and Rotterdam Convention into the mercury treaty.

In terms of primary mercury mining, the biggest breakthrough of the negotiations was an agreement to phase-out existing primary mercury mining operations within 15 years of treaty ratification, despite initial stiff opposition from China, a nation that is currently home to significant mercury mining. Additionally, a ban on new primary mercury mining was agreed upon. Some countries with mercury deposits but no existing primary mining operations requested financial compensation for foregone resource development resulting from the ban on new mining. Thankfully, the contact group Co-Chair, Donald Hannah, helped avoid this potential sticking point by making clear that discussion of such compensation was beyond the scope of the technical working group. Importantly, the ban on new mining and phase-out existing mining will help prevent the continued release of mercury from lithosphere into the earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and soil.

It was agreed upon at INC4 that all parties must quantify secondary sources of mercury and mercury compounds by taking inventory of “stocks” and “supply-generating stocks”. However, the thresholds sizes for the accounting of these sources were not defined in the draft treaty text put together by the Chair, and we expected that this would be a point of contention during the final negotiations. Surprisingly, the contact group quickly settled upon thresholds of 50 metric tons for individual stocks and 10 metric tons per year of supply-generating stocks. While the question of threshold sizes was easily resolved, the question of whether mercury compounds should be included in the clauses of article 3 was the source of much debate. Resistance came primarily from the American delegates, who did not want mercury compounds to be included. However, after much debate, it was decided that mercury compounds will be included.

Discussion around supply, trade, and waste also focused on whether and how to include a “Prior Informed Consent” (PIC) mechanism, similar to that included in the Rotterdam Convention, for mercury import and export. From the contact group discussions, it was clear that PIC is important to developing nations, especially those from the African Group and Group of Latin America and Caribbean Countries (GRULAC). In the end, the contact group agreed upon a PIC mechanism that allows states to submit standing consent, indicating PIC of all mercury imports until further notice, to the Secretariat. This compromise is designed to stem the flow of illicit or unwanted mercury trade while, at the same time, minimizing the administrative burden of PIC.

Finally, Article 12 of the agreed upon treaty text mandates that the trans-boundary movements of mercury waste must comply with the terms of the Basel Convention.

Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining

UNEP’s Global Mercury Assessment 2013 indicates that ASGM is now the largest source of anthropogenic mercury emissions. As such, we expected significant negotiation over whether and how to regulate the import and export of mercury for ASGM, and possibly some discussion over the eventual phase-out of ASGM.

However, ASGM is a particularly difficult issue to address in a multi-lateral setting like INC5. Beyond the environmental issues, which are both local and global in nature, ASGM is tied to the economic interests of many developing nations. As a result, there are serious trade-offs between the social and economic benefits and the health and environmental impacts of ASGM, and these trade-offs need to be considered when making an ASGM policy.

At INC5, Article 9 on ASGM was discussed but was not altered dramatically from the Chair’s proposed text. No special restrictions were placed on the use of imported mercury for ASGM, and no phase-out date was included in the draft treaty text. The only significant change to the Chair’s proposed text was the addition of some relatively weak wording in Annex E (which concerns national action plan requirements for ASGM) indicating that nations must develop “strategies for managing trade and preventing diversion of mercury” for ASGM.


Although supply, trade, waste, and ASGM are seemingly separate issues, it worked surprisingly well for a single contact group to work toward agreement on these topics along with issues related to products and processes. By discussing all of these concerns in detail in the same forum, delegates were able to trade across issues to develop a text that, in aggregate, was acceptable to everyone. As Lawrence Susskind says in his blog on good negotiation strategy, working across issues to create package solutions is important for mutual gains outcomes.

We can’t wait to see if the final versions of Articles 3, 9, and 13 will stand up to their next test: the signing in Minamata!