Tag Archives: emissions

Emissions and Releases in the Final Agreement

By: Rebecca Saari and Leah Stokes

Before the negotiations began, we wrote this post summarizing the key issues negotiators were considering for mercury emissions to air and releases to land and water. It was clear that the delegates had much to resolve. What did countries finally decide, and what does it mean? We’ll cover these questions in this post.

Countries addressed how mercury enters the environment by identifying “relevant sources” for emissions in Annex F. The text specifically identifies coal-fired plants and boilers, non-ferrous metal mining activities, waste incineration, and cement production, as sources for mercury emissions that need to be controlled. Oil and gas, facilities where mercury added products are manufactured, and manganese production, which were all included in the draft Annex F at the beginning of the week, were excluded from the final agreement.

Conversely, sources to land and water are not specified in the treaty text. Instead, it is left to Parties to identify these sources within 3 years of the Convention’s entry into force, with the help of the Conference of the Parties. In other words, this decision was left for future rounds of negotiation.

Parties must also create an inventory of their emissions and releases within 5 years the Convention’s entry into force. This is quite a long time. On the one hand, inventories can take a while. Consider that the US Environmental Protection Agency takes three years to issue updates of its National Emissions Inventory of common air contaminants. Still, many countries have been working on inventorying their mercury emissions and releases for many years, in parallel to the negotiations, so, for many countries, a five year period is quite lenient. Many countries have already completed or begun their inventories, and those who haven’t can use the UNEP Toolkit. This inventory is a critical tool for identifying sources and tracking progress. In fact, measuring emissions may be a key way that the treaty changes state behavior over time, by making emissions and releases more visible.

There’s a difference between how the treaty addresses new and existing emission sources. For new sources, parties must apply Best Available Techniques (BAT) and/or Best Environmental Practices (BEP) within five years. To manage existing sources, parties can choose between applying goals, emissions limits, BAT/BEP, multi-pollutant control options, and other measures that reduce emissions. For existing sources, measures must be applied within 10 years for existing sources of air emissions. There isn’t a corresponding deadline for action on releases, though an optional plan of action may be submitted within 4 years.

As discussed above, there are differences in the treatment of emissions to air versus releases to land and water. However, mercury mobilization, whether to the air or water, will have an equivalent fate in the long run, as explained by Helen Amos. Also, our earlier post pointed out that stricter control of air emissions might create perverse incentives to transfer mercury to the water, where it bioaccumulates in seafood and gets into our diets. The relative importance of releases vs. emissions is also an area of ongoing scientific research.

With the adoption of these articles, Parties have made some meaningful progress in policing how mercury enters our environment. The true test of the treaty’s significance and strength will come in the years to follow, as guidance is crafted and implemented. Ultimately, the treaty will need to not only control emissions and releases, but reduce them. In other words, this treaty is just the end of step one.

Issue Overview: Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining

by Mark Staples and Danya Rumore

Throughout much of the world, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) provides subsistence livelihoods for more than 15 million people and produces up to 30% of the world’s mined gold.

Unfortunately, the sector relies heavily on mercury as a critical part of their gold extraction process. Mercury is added to ore to form a mercury-gold amalgam. This amalgam is then burned, causing the mercury to vaporize and leaving behind pure gold. While an effective process—one that has been in practice since at least 1000 CE— this type of mining leads to the direct exposure of miners to mercury, often with severe health impacts. ASGM is also responsible for the direct release of mercury into the environment and, according to the recently released Global Mercury Assessment 2013, small-scale gold mining is currently the largest human-caused source of mercury emissions. Additionally, ASGM drives a black market in mercury trade—check out Mark Staples’ blog on the illicit mercury trade to learn more about this.

Some nations, such as China, have already banned ASGM practices. Practically, however, these bans are difficult to implement. ASGM occurs almost entirely in the “informal section”—i.e., not as part of regulated industry—throughout the world, making it hard to monitor and control. As a result, the use of mercury in small-scale mining operations still occurs in nations that have implemented ASGM bans.

Despite the challenges associated with monitoring and regulating ASGM, acting to limit this major source of mercury releases is critical and possible. Accordingly, ASGM has attracted significant attention at INC5. The debate around article 9, which addresses ASGM issues, has focused on whether the import and export of mercury will be allowed for ASGM purposes, and if a phase-out date for ASGM will be introduced. In the next 24 hours, these are issues that will likely be resolved in balance with other supply and trade and products and processes issues. However, for now, it remains to be seen what will be decided.

Track us on twitter @markdstaples and @DanyaRumore to see what the negotiators decide on this critical issue!

The Curious Life of a Mercury Atom

by Bethanie Edwards

Hi, a mercury atom here. I’m currently floating in a water bottle of a delegate at the INC5 mercury negotiations in Geneva. As you know, the global community is coming together this week to negotiate ways to prevent my release into the environment. How exactly do I and my fellow mercury atoms make it into the environment to begin with? Let me share my experience with you.

For much of my life I was just a mercury atom sharing electrons with my best friend, a sulfur atom, deep in the earth as cinnabar. My potential toxicity was masked by my rosy appearance. I was expecting to spend my entire life nestled away in the Earth’s crust. But suddenly, I was startled, a loud persistent thud getting closer and closer. It was 1500 AD, and Spanish miners had just dug me out of my lithospheric home in the mountain-sides of Almaden, Spain. That’s when I began my journey, contributing to the 350,000 metric tons of mercury that humans have released into the environment over the last 4000 years.

Illustration from Erker (1574)

Illustration from Erker (1574)

After traveling to a monastery, monks began heating me up. I could feel my bond with sulfur dissipating; I was entering the vapor phase. I was collected in a distillation bulb as I evaporated, separated from the cinnabar. Little did I know, I’d soon be forced into a new partnership (albeit a brief one).

Once condensed into my liquid state and mixed with sluice from gold panning, my affinity for binding with other metals led me to bind together with all of the gold in the river bed sluice, separating the gold from the rock. When the rock was discarded the monks begin heating me up again, ending my short amalgamation with gold. However, this time as I vaporized, I escaped into the atmosphere.

The vapor pressure of mercury is very high, so I floated all the way into the upper troposphere and caught a wind current to the North Pole. Along the way I met a few other mercury atoms. Most of them had found their way into the atmosphere after weathering into rivers and then evaporating, or after being emitted from the eruption of a volcano. I bummed around in the Arctic troposphere for about 6 months.  As I recall, there were quite a few bromine atoms around. I ran into one, lost a few electrons, and then stuck to it. Then we began falling through the atmosphere, luckily there was snow to break our fall. There I waited until summer, when the snow began to melt and I was washed into a fjord.

As the summer progressed in the fjord, phytoplankton bloomed and then died. The bacterial populations began to grow exponentially and, before I knew it, the bacteria had used up all the oxygen. When bacteria deplete all the oxygen gas in an environment, they move on to using other molecules to make a living. Once they started using sulfate (SO42-), my old friend sulfur re-entered the picture. I bound with it and, not too long afterward, one of those bacteria sucked me into her cell. I’m not sure if the bacterium was just interested in the sulfur that I was attached to, or if she found me to be too toxic, but—to my horror—the bacterium quickly tore away the sulfur and stuck me with a methyl group.

Now, I’m not trying to be prejudiced against carbon, but it’s really not a good influence on me. I have enough toxicity problems on my own. And when I’m bound to an organic carbon, I can’t resist diffusing into organisms, be it fish, shellfish, or humans.  That is exactly what happened. After the water that I was residing in was re-oxygenated, a fish came along and I entered its body through the gill tissue, and as I was a methylmercury molecule by then, I wasn’t the only one to do so.

Eventually my fishy friend’s luck ran out; a fisherman caught him and cooked him up for dinner. I stayed inside the fisherman until he lived out his days and was cremated, and I was released back into the atmosphere.

I felt bad for the poor fellow but I was perfectly happy to be back in the atmosphere. I was looking forward to seeing the Arctic again. But to my surprise, I started falling to the Earth very shortly after being emitted. It must have been all the soot that I was associated with. I was deposited on the forest floor. As the seasons turned and leaves fell and decayed, I became buried in the soil. The rains came and went, but I stayed in the forest getting buried millimeter by millimeter deeper into the soil with each passing year. Until the day the fires came, that is.

Sometimes forest fires burn so hot that they scorch the soil. When this occurs, volatile elements like me can be vaporized and released into the atmosphere. While I will admit I was sequestered in the soil for quite a while, I did not expect to see so many other mercury atoms when I returned to the atmosphere. I met mercury atoms that had found their way to the atmosphere after being in fillings in people’s mouths, atoms that used to reside in light bulbs, several atoms that were used recently in gold mining in the depths of the jungle, and of course the atoms that were released from coal.

This time when I met and bound with a bromine radical, I was in the atmosphere over the Swiss Alps. Since Switzerland is a temperate region, it took much longer to get deposited than it had when I was in the Arctic. However, I eventually landed in the waters of the Alps and ultimately made it into the water bottle of an INC5 delegate.

Since I am one of 1.5×1015 mercury molecules in this water bottle alone, I sure do hope that they agree upon and sign a treaty with teeth!


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.

What to Expect from INC5 Day 4–Wednesday, January 16

It’s Day 4, and the negotiating sessions are, according to the current schedule, more than half over! What have the negotiators done with all the time so far? They’ve discovered key areas of disagreement, and forged some progress on text in various groups. The plenary sessions are plodding and/or breezing their way through various articles while contact, technical, and drafting groups untangle the details.

The schedule has become fluid, but we expect:

  • A sunny day, rather than yesterday’s snow.
  • “Under Pressure” on repeat in the plenary before we start the day.
  • A late start to the first plenary.
  • Updates on progress from the groups dealing with “Selected Technical Articles” (a.k.a. the “Mega-Contact Group”), Emissions and Releases (a.k.a. my personal favorite, led by witty UK delegate John Roberts), Health (a.k.a. “Guess WHO*?”),  Technical assistance (a.k.a. “Got Tech?”).
  • A polite and sincere urging from Chair Lugris for these groups to continue their “excellent work.”
  • The Mega-Contact Group chugging along continuously, tirelessly (and sleeplessly).
  • Optimistically: finalizing Article 3, 7, 8, Article 9 (ASGM) and maybe even some work on article 13 (storage and waste).
  • A drafting group to continue work on implementation plans.
  • A drafting group to tackle treaty text addressing releases to land and water.
  • A presentation by BRI-IPEN on mercury hotspots.
  • The legal group to continue their helpful work on reviewing some of the draft articles.
  • A small contact group called “Friends of Health” to discuss how to integrate wording on health into the treaty.
  • Another Swiss Break!

Stay tuned for Mark’s daily wrap-up blog, or follow us on twitter @MITmercury or at #MITmercury to catch all the action.

Interested in particular aspects of the treaty discussions?

An already-outdated snap of the day's schedule

An already-outdated snap of the day’s schedule – it’s a fast paced day!

Follow me, @BeckySaari, @NoelleSelin and @leahstokes for coverage on emissions and releases as the delegates try to tackle some text. Our friends are also tweeting away:

  • @alicealpert and (@jvanderhoop following technical and financial assistance.
  • @Bea_Edwards and @lncz will reflect on products and processes
  • @markdstaples and @DanyaRumore are tracking the hot issues of ASGM, supply, waste and trade.
  • @wolfeyp and @amandagiang tweeting on institutions and implementation!

*NOTE: WHO = World Health Organization

Daily Roundup for INC5 Day 2 – Monday January 14

By: Leah Stokes

The second day of negotiations at INC5 was a busy day, without any Swiss breaks. Delegates spent significant time discussing key articles on Products & Processes, and Emissions & Releases. Here are some updates from our team’s observations on the proceedings so far. 

Products & Processes

The technical working group focused on products and processes started early and has powered through the entire day. There was a lot of back and forth between the US, Canada, EU, Japan, and the African Group on the one hand and China, India and Brazil on the other about phase-out dates. China was particularly persistent that they could not phase out mercury batteries by 2020, because there are no mercury-free alternatives currently available to China. Compact flourescents and lamps were also hot topics; negotiators broke off into a smaller group around 11:15 PM to try to reach agreement on mercury concentrations and phase-out dates.

The working group has a new co-chair, Donald Hannah from New Zealand. He delivered an inspiring speech at the beginning of the session and set some ambitious goals. “Finding problems with text is unacceptable at this stage of the process,” he told the delegates. “We are not going to let perfection get in the way of a good text.” His expectations for a cooperative and productive group have spurred the discussions forward. By 11 PM, it looked like negotiations on this issue would continue until the middle of the night.

Emissions & Releases

This morning’s plenary session kicked off INC5’s discussion of mercury emissions to air and releases to land and water. Countries noted that emissions and releases were “crucial” and “at the heart” of the treaty. In the plenary, countries sorted into supporting a more stringent approach, binding targets and techniques–option 1–or a more flexible approach with national plans–option 2. With the notable exception of the African Group, developing countries generally favored a flexible approach, while developed countries favored a more stringent approach.

After discussing key issues, the Chair arranged a contact group chaired by John Roberts (UK) and a negotiator from Indonesia. Meeting in the afternoon, the group was tasked with resolving issues around: the use and nature of thresholds to exclude small sources; striking an agreement on the strength of the articles by specifying the precise requirements and controls; and deciding what distinctions should be made between emissions to air versus releases to land and water.

At the end of this meeting, the co-Chairs formed a team to craft the first draft of a new, compromise article (between option 1 and 2) that will specify precise requirements and controls while allowing sufficient flexibility. They are working busily as we craft this blog post. The results of their efforts will be discussed again in the contact group tomorrow. In addition, plans were made for a technical group to provide guidance on the options and implications for various threshold levels and sources in the coming days.

Institutions & Implementation:

Today’s discussions on institutions and implementation in the plenary focused on links with the Basel Convention. Negotiators emphasized there is a need to clarify linkages with Basel, which focuses on chemical waste broadly, and the section in the draft mercury treaty focused on waste. The Chair mentioned that many delegates here worked on drafting the Basel Convention, so he hoped that they would draw their attention to this task. The US notably brought attention to the fact that they had signed the Basel convention; although they have not ratified it.

Definitions was another key issue. There are some proposals for redefining use allowed to ease some of the disagreements in ASGM. More broadly, there is increasing concern that the draft treaty text be consistent across sections, to ensure a smooth implementation.

Financial & Technical Assistance

Discussion in the Financial & Technical Assistance contact group began with restating country positions and then moved to defining technology transfer. It is still undetermined whether the treaty will include both “soft” technology transfer – including best practices and know-how – and/or “hard” technology transfer – namely, the actual technology. As a result, delegates have yet to negotiate a streamlined version of Article 16bis regarding technology transfer.

Discussion of Article 16, regarding technical assistance, centered around whether technological assistance will only flow from developed to developing countries, or will be exchanged among all parties. This discussion was facilitated by a colorful and popular metaphor of countries ‘dancing the tango and deciding who will lead’—doubltless, some stepping on partners’ toes will occur. As of 10 PM, it appeared that all parties would cooperate to provide [something], to developing countries in particular. What that ‘something’ is remains unknown. Although the chairwoman from Jamaica is providing firm and insightful guidance, there is still much to be decided in this area.

Supply & Trade, ASGM and Waste

Supply & Trade, ASGM and Waste were all introduced in the afternoon plenary session today.

On Supply & Trade, countries debated whether to ban existing and future primary mercury mining, with Chile arguing a ban would set a precedent for other treaties. In addition, the specificity of import/export procedures and their similarity to the Stockholm and Rotterdam conventions was a critical issue, as was the question of whether Prior Informed Consent was needed before mercury was traded.

On AGSM, parties discussed whether text should be included for the phase-out of mercury use in ASGM and whether paragraph 6, concerning financial and technical assistance, should be included or deleted. It was unclear whether banning mercury use in ASGM would just push demand for mercury into a black market.

Finally, on waste, the definition of “mercury waste”, and the use of “shall” rather than “may” were discussed in plenary.

The “technical matters” contact group was subsequently tasked with developing clearer text on all these issues. It is unlikely that the contact group will address these issues until late tomorrow.

The Mercury Legacy: Defining “Natural” versus “Anthropogenic” Mercury

by Helen Amos

Written by Helen Amos from Harvard University, this is the first of our Guest Scientist Blogs. Helen is a fourth year PhD candidate in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at Harvard. Her research focuses on understanding the biogeochemical cycling and environmental fate of mercury and other toxics. She is currently using state-of-the-science models to get a handle on the impact of past historical releases of anthropogenic mercury on present-day and future levels of mercury in the environment. Email: amos@fas.harvard.edu      Website: http://people.fas.harvard.edu/~amos

When you go out and measure mercury in the environment today, how much of that mercury occurs naturally and how much is the result of anthropogenic (i.e., man-made) releases? This is a critical question with an uncertain answer. Much of the uncertainty stems from not considering the impact of anthropogenic mercury released in the past.

Human activities (e.g., mining) have been releasing mercury to the environment since antiquity (Nriagu, 1994; Cooke et al., 2009; Streets et al., 2011). The result of several millennia of anthropogenic mercury releases is mercury enrichment in the atmosphere, ocean, and soil.

Mercury continuously cycles between the atmosphere, ocean, and soil. Mercury emitted to the atmosphere (e.g., from a coal fired power plant) is eventually deposited to ocean or soil where it may be sequestered or may be re-emitted back to the atmosphere. This creates a “legacy” of mercury in the environment such that much of the mercury today originates from historical anthropogenic releases in the past.

It is all too common that mercury emitted from the ocean and soil is simply referred to as “natural mercury emissions”. However, not all of the mercury currently being emitted from the ocean and soil is truly “natural”. Rather, some fraction is naturally occurring and the remainder is anthropogenic mercury that was once deposited and is now being re-released to the atmosphere.

New work (Amos et al., 2013) suggests that a large fraction of mercury present in the environment today is a legacy of historical anthropogenic mercury emissions. Globally, more than half of the mercury in the ocean today is of anthropogenic origin (Amos et al., 2013). And more than half of the mercury emitted to the atmospheric today is legacy anthropogenic mercury (Amos et al., 2013).

How we define “natural” versus “anthropogenic” mercury has direct relevance to the UNEP mercury treaty. If policymakers want to regulate mercury or set targets for reductions, we need to know what the natural background levels of mercury in the environment actually are. If mercury emissions are incorrectly labeled as natural emissions, the impact of anthropogenic releases is underestimated and our ability to reduce or stabilize mercury concentrations in the environment is overestimated. Decision-makers need to keep this science in mind as they prepare a global mercury policy.



Amos, H. M. et al. (2013), Legacy impacts of all-time anthropogenic emissions on the global             mercury cycle, Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles, in review.

Cooke, C. A., et al. (2009), Over three millennia of mercury pollution in the Peruvian Andes,             Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A., 106(22), 8830-8834.

Nriagu, J. O. (1994), Mercury pollution from the past mining of gold and silver in the Americas,             Sci. Total Environ., 149(3), 167-181.

Streets, D. G., et al. (2011), All-time releases of mercury to the atmosphere from human             activities, Environ. Sci. Technol., 45(24), 10485-10491.

Co-Benefits of Mercury Emissions Reduction

Finding the silver lining in reducing quicksilver

By: Rebecca Saari

As a PhD Candidate researching air pollution, I have enjoyed following the treaty discussions, particularly those focusing on emissions and releases. At MIT, I study the many social and environmental gains from reducing air pollution. Often, targeting reductions of a single pollutant – like mercury – can simultaneously serve to reduce other pollutants as a side-benefit. Finding and quantifying such “co-benefits” is my passion. (My other passions include skiing and chocolate, so it does not hurt that the negotiations are in Switzerland.)

Reducing mercury emissions

Nanticoke, coal-fired thermal generating station in Ontario, Canada, with a total capacity of 3,920 MW, was once the largest coal plant in North America. It will no longer burn coal, by the end of 2013 (Photo by Ontario Power Generation).

If the treaty creates new action to reduce mercury emissions, it can realize gains that go far beyond the direct impacts of mercury alone. Controlling mercury from coal-fired combustion, the second-largest air emissions source, can be achieved with measures that also control other pollutants. In particular, reducing mercury emissions to air can also reduce emissions of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

All of these pollutants have significant human health impacts. Estimates of global worldwide deaths due to fine particulate matter exceed 1 million per year. Beijing is currently experiencing extreme levels of fine particulate matter. Countries can use the opportunity presented by this treaty to make progress towards multiple goals in protecting human health and the environment.

Reducing mercury emissions from coal would go a long way towards diminishing the global transport of mercury pollution. Nearly one quarter of all mercury emissions to air arise from the combustion of coal in utility, industrial, and residential boilers.

Many ways to reduce mercury and other pollutants

There are numerous ways to address mercury emissions, which have varying co-benefits.
There are numerous ways to address mercury emissions, which have various co-benefits.

There are many ways to reduce mercury emissions from coal across the entire combustion process, from start to finish, including pre-treating coal, improving process efficiency, and using post-combustion technologies.

Before coal is burned, several actions can reduce mercury, sulfur compounds, and particulate emissions. There are several different types of coal, and they vary in the amount of pollutants they contain. Coal switching and coal blending can allow mercury emissions to be captured more easily. This is a low-tech, potentially low-cost form of mercury reduction. Coal can also be pre-treated through a variety of processes, including washing, beneficiation, and the application of additives. Depending on the type of cleaning and variety of coal, washing alone can remove about 10-80% of the mercury content in coal before combustion takes place.

We can also improve the efficiency of coal plants through operations and maintenance (O&M) measures that lower the emissions intensity of coal-related pollutants including mercury and greenhouse gases, and potentially lead to more sustainable and cost-effective use of fossil fuels. Various O&M measures are effective options. Typically, these approaches target improved combustion efficiency, improved flue-gas ventilation, and reduced leakage and fouling.

Once coal combustion is complete, mercury can be captured using conventional methods designed for other pollutants. Specifically, wet sulfur scrubbers (a.k.a. wet flue gas desulfurization), particulate capture (including fabric filters, electrostatic precipitators), and NOx controls (i.e. selective catalytic reduction) can aid in mercury removal. Depending on the type of coal and configuration of equipment, more than 90% reduction of mercury can be achieved. For additional mercury removal, mercury-specific sorbent injection can be added to the process.

Looking to the future, multi-pollutant control technologies, which aim to reduce key pollutants simultaneously, may gain in popularity. Several systems already exist, at various stages of development, demonstration and commercialization. The mercury treaty has the potential to sow the seeds for broad protection of human health and the environment, beyond the gains due to mercury alone.

Interested in learning more? Three great resources are the UNEP’s “Process Optimization Guidance”, the International Energy Agency Clean Coal Centre and Pacyna et al. There is also an interactive companion to UNEP POG called iPOG, a tool you can use to learn about  options, and estimate your facility’s mercury reduction potential.

An Overview of Undecided Issues at the INC5 Mercury Treaty Negotiations

by Ellen Czaika

INC5, the International Negotiating Committee on Mercury’s 5th and final meeting in Geneva, started yesterday and continues through January 18 or 19 (depending on how long it takes to reach agreement). The discussions are working off of a draft treaty text compiled by the Chair based on the INC4 talks in Uruguay last July.

Several specifics of the treaty have yet to be agreed upon. Let’s look at an overview of what is on the table this week (see our Issue Overview blogs for more details on each of these topics).

Organizational and Implementation Issues

The exact wording of the preamble has yet to be agreed upon. It sets the tone and context of the convention text. Furthermore, the implementation strength of the document is still being debated. This manifests itself partly as a debate over the use of the seemingly similar but yet importantly distinct verbs: “are able to,” “may,” and “shall.” Also relevant to the implementation strength of the treaty, the amount and type of financial and technical assistance to be associated with the agreement is far from settled.

The level of trade transparency is also in question. This issue relates to the amount of insight nations give into their mercury trade and raises questions about monitoring and data reporting.

Another discussion to be made is whether to use the words, “implementation,” “compliance,” or “implementation and compliance.” Use of the word compliance implies the creation of an oversight body that monitors nations’ mercury mining, emissions, trade, disposal, and use. “Implementation,” when used alone, leaves nations responsible for their own assessment of adherence to the treaty’s regulations.

This discussion about “implementation” and “compliance” relates to national sovereignty. Each nation wants its sovereignty respected, but in order to protect its citizens from mercury, it needs other nations to reduce emissions and releases too. If mercury did not move around the globe, a more individualized approach could make sense. However, mercury released in one area affects people worldwide.

Furthermore, the negotiating parties have yet to agree on some procedural and timeline details, such as when the treaty will enter into force (i.e., become live) and whether there will be withdrawal periods.

Additionally and importantly, the parties have yet to agree on how to discuss health aspects within the treaty. This includes whether and how to regulate dental amalgams.

Emissions and Releases Issues

One of the items the Parties will be discussing is how to reduce human-caused mercury releases. They will discuss four main topics related to releases and emissions: sources, thresholds, control objective, and flexibility.

The sources can be categorized by time (existing versus future sources), by industry (chemical production, mining, energy production, product production, waste disposal, etc.), by geography (where in the world the release happens), and by economic or other necessity, among other categories. Should we control all categories of sources? If not all, which ones will be controlled? Should we allow some exceptions for industries that provide irreplaceable employment for impoverished peoples? (If you have thoughts about this, comment below!)

To be effective, thresholds need to be precise and emissions need to be measured to ascertain whether they meet the thresholds. There is debate about whether or not to set thresholds. If thresholds are set, expect long discussions about what those numbers will be. The range of proposed limits on flue gas emissions is 0.01 to 0.2 mg/m3 (for more about this, see our Emissions and Releases Overview blog)

Discussion around the control objective includes the proposing of emission limits, setting reduction goals, relying on best available technology/practices, or wrapping mercury control in with the control of other pollutants (such as others that are released when coal is burned).

The flexibility of the agreement is also in discussion. That is, should nations be in charge of their targets and limits or should there be UN oversight of direct, global targets and limits.

Products and Processes Issues

The draft text has adopted a positive list approach, which means that only the mercury-containing products and processes listed have to be regulated (watch for my upcoming blog on the differences between positive and negative lists). However, the specific products and processes to be listed remain to be decided, as well as their phase out dates (the draft text currently contains place-holder lists). Additionally, it is not a given that both products and process will follow the same type of list; one may be negative and the other positive.

Improper disposal of mercury-containing products can lead to releases of mercury into land and water. Due to its relationship with the product list, wording around disposal is still being decided, as discussed below.

ASGM, Waste, and Trade Issues

Although the parties have agreed on some components of the treaty in regards to trade, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM), and waste, there are still several issues to be decided on these topics.

The threshold values of mercury producing facilities that must be identified and monitored within each national territory is still undecided. The higher the threshold, the fewer facilities that must bereported, and therefore potentially more mercury emissions that will be unaccounted for (but less need for monitoring resources). The lower the threshold, the more countries will have to spend on monitoring, but the more likely global mercury will be controlled.

On the issue of ASGM, the parties have not yet agreed as to whether the implementation of ASGM regulations will be contingent on the provision of financial and technical assistance.

In terms of waste monitoring, the parties have not yet decided about this convention’s relation to the Basel Convention. It is already agreed that the trade in waste will require written consent of the receiving nation. This is similar to the Basel Convention’s requirement for “prior informed consent.” However there are some parties to this mercury convention that are not parties to the Basel Convention. The INC5 negotiating parties have not decide whether nations that are not party to Basel Convention will have to comply with agreed upon transport controls, especially with respect to the informed consent and the take-back obligations of the Basel convention.

Technical Transfer and Funding Issues

Just as with any action, stopping mercury use has both desirable and undesirable consequences. Negotiating parties are trying to balance the desirable consequence (such as improved health for humans and animals) with the undesirable consequences. Some of the undesirable consequences include the loss of livelihood for those whose profession relates to mercury releases (people who work in the coal industry, miners, etc). Not reducing mercury emissions and not controlling mercury-containing products endangers the health of humans, animals, and ecosystems around the globe. Some of the people most impacted are those who work directly with mercury in conditions that lack safety precautions, such as workers in waste combustion sites and artisanal and small-scale gold miners. Finding other work for these often-impoverished workers is not as straightforward as its sounds. These workers are in a tough spot; they need work to be able to afford food and shelter, but their means of housing and feeding themselves and their families endangers their health.

Therefore, the negotiating parties will discuss means to facilitate developing nations’ creation of alternative employment and utilization of technology to reduce mercury emissions. Building this capacity in developing nations requires resources. One contentious part of this convention is who provides these resources to the developing nations and in what form.

When specifically discussing technology for reducing mercury emissions, the parties are considering technical assistance and the transfer of technology and knowledge (see our Issue Overview blog on technical and financial assistance for more about this).

Technical assistance and the transfer of technology and knowledge have the potential to create jobs related to the control of mercury, which might be able to replace the jobs that contribute to its emission. However, these types of jobs potentially require different skills and training, which is a non-trivial consideration.

This balancing of cost of implementation requires a mechanism such as a fund. The parties have agreed that there should be a fund. However, they haven’t agreed on who will contribute to it and who will manage it. Related to the management question is the frequency of reviews and evaluations of the fund. A major question on this front is whether the fund should be administered by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

Presently, there are two options on the table for technology transfer. The first is that developed nations will create a mechanism for the transfer of technology to the least developed countries and small island developing states. The second is that the treaty will explicitly state what technology should be transferred.

The assistance issue relates very strongly to the viability of the agreement. If the means for implementing regulations aren’t available, the treaty becomes only words—and many parties probably won’t sign it. Hence, the discussion around assistance will likely be a very interesting part of the coming week!

Watch our blog and follow us on twitter @MITMercury. We’ll be posting details on the discussions and negotiations about these undecided issues as they emerge!

Daily Roundup for INC5 Day 1—Sunday, January 13

by Danya Rumore

The fifth meeting of the International Negotiating Committee to Prepare a Legally Binding Instrument on Mercury (INC 5) officially began yesterday on an overcast, chilly day here in Geneva, Switzerland.

The morning began with a demonstration by the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN), an organization working for a toxics-free future, at 8:30am. Their main concern: the treaty should be called “A Global Mercury Treaty”, not “A Minamata Convention”, because this treaty may not be sufficient to prevent future mercury-related health tragedies like that experienced in Minamata, Japan.

Following IPEN’s demonstration, we spent about 15 minutes trying to find our way to the third floor balcony in the labyrinthine International Conference Center. Finally making our way through the maze of stairs, hallways, and doors to the NGOs nosebleed seats (to use another attendee’s term), we sat down to enjoy the traditional yodeling session that kicked off the day’s official events.


At 9:30am, the yodeling ceased and the plenary session began.  The session started with the opening ceremony, in which the attendance of about 900 delegates from 140 countries was noted and INC Chair Lugris urged participants to focus on finding consensus. While languages from around the world were spoken on the floor, everything was translated into English (and numerous other languages) and transmitted to participants through headphones available at each seat.


Then came the delegates’ opening statements. In statements ranging from 2-20 minutes, delegates gracefully thanked the Chair for his work, expressed their appreciation for Switzerland hosting the meeting, and made clear their positions on the treaty. I think we were all somewhat amazed by how not surprised we were by nations’ and NGOs opening statements; they were more or less exactly what someone familiar with the issues on the table would expect (opening statements are detailed in the Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) newsletter).  However, we were a little surprised—and quite amused—by the Philippines delegate’s mention that he hoped Chair Lugris enjoyed his recent holiday in the Philippines, to which the Chair replied that he did.

Opening statements continued until a little after 1:00pm, when everyone filtered out of the stadium-style plenary room, down the maze of stairs, to the host country’s welcome lunch reception. Despite having to fight against apparently hungry delegates to get food, we enjoyed a buffet including everything from cold cuts and salads to potato soup with truffle oil. We also enjoyed live Swiss music from a band of two musicians dressed in traditional Swiss garb (one barefoot) playing zithers with a third musician, wearing a black suit, playing a bass (it was an interesting trio, but the music was excellent).


Amid the music and buffet, we mingled with delegates and other NGO representatives, talked about our poster with people passing by our table, and discussed the happenings of the morning. Then we loaded up on dessert and plenty of coffee to get us through the afternoon session, and we returned to the plenary for a discussion of the draft treaty text.

The afternoon plenary began with a discussion of the treaty’s preamble, during which delegates proposed adding a direct mention of Minamata, referencing indigenous peoples, including health impacts, invoking the precautionary principle, and bringing the polluter pays principle into the preamble’s language.

Following discussion of the preamble, the plenary moved on to the topic of products and processes (watch for Bethanie’s and Ellen’s upcoming blog on this topic). After much debate about Articles 6, 7, 8, and 8b, it was decided that a contact group would meet in the evening to continue discussion of this topic area.

Before breaking for dinner, the delegate from Saudi Arabia represented the interest of the everyone at the conference by making the statement “We seem to be having problems with the internet…” At a paperless meeting where all documents are shared over the intranet, good internet connection is a non-negotiable issue.


Following a dinner break (i.e., a time to search for outlets in order to charge our laptops), our MIT team divided into two groups: one group returned to the plenary for the discussion of financial and technical assistance and the other group went to observe the contact group discussion on products and processes.

In the contact group on products and processes, the debate about Articles 6, 7, and 8 continued, with the US and Canada largely dominating the conversation. While some progress was made before the close of the session a little after midnight (see ENB newsletter for more details), much work remains to be done on the subject of products and processes.

In the plenary, the discussion about financial and technical assistance was largely dominated by a sharp divide between 1) the nations that love the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the nations that do not love the GEF, and 2) those that want technology transfer and those that are seemingly unwilling (or, as many developed nations put it, not able) to provide it.

The conclusion of the plenary discussion, ending late in the night, was that a contact group would meet today to continue discussion on Article 16 (technical assistance and, possibly, capacity building) but not Article 15 (financial resources and mechanisms). For now, the contentious Article 15 is on hold, and the first item on the agenda for the plenary during day 2 is emissions and releases.

So concluded Day 1 of the INC5 negotiations and, as I write this, day 2 is in full swing. Check out Ellen’s blog on “What to expect from day 2” to learn more about what’s coming up in today’s negotiations.