Tag Archives: regulation

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.

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.

Benefit estimates and other health effects from mercury

By: Amanda Giang

When I’m not in glamorous Geneva, and instead in my much-less-glamorous cubicle in Cambridge, MA, I work on assessing the benefits of reducing mercury emissions. The bulk of these benefits are related to improved health—reviewed in our earlier post. Discussion on the health impacts of mercury normally focus on neurologic effects—and with good reason. These effects often have devastating impacts on the lives of victims, and heavy social and economic costs—even when we’re talking about subtle IQ loss from fetal exposure to methylmercury.

What’s more, we have a large body of scientific evidence that helps us understand these neurologic effects, and that can help guide policy decisions about preventing them. But, focusing on just neurologic effects may not tell the whole story. There may be other—though considerably more uncertain—health effects from mercury exposure that have serious policy implications. A large part of my research is about how to include these uncertain health effects in estimating benefits from reduced mercury emissions.

Of these uncertain effects, cardiovascular impacts may be the most important, and also the least uncertain. A growing body of evidence suggests that there may be a causal relationship between methylmercury and cardiovascular disease (coronary heart disease, heart attacks, increased blood pressure). Scientists still aren’t sure why mercury might promote heart attacks; one hypothesis is that it causes oxidative damage.

A committee convened by the US EPA recently decided that there was enough evidence, at least for heart attacks, to warrant including this health effect in future benefit assessments for mercury regulation.* Taking into account mercury-related heart attacks is important because the “cost” of a heart attack—personal, social, and economic—is very high; particularly if a heart attack leads to a fatality. In one of the first studies to include heart attacks in its calculations of costs and benefits, 80% of the benefits associated with reduced mercury exposure ($8.6 billion/year in the US) were due to reduced heart attacks.

If, through further research, it turns out there is a causal relationship between mercury and heart disease, then this week’s mercury treaty might be even more socially beneficial than countries initially thought. This was the case when the US regulated sulfur dioxide in the 1990s. Originally, the focus during the policy’s development was on environmental benefits from reduced acid rain. However, it later emerged that reducing sulfur dioxide has huge health benefits (an unexpected $70 billion/year!). As the science develops, we’ll see whether this will play out for mercury as well.

* NOTE: In the US, part of the regulation making process involves assessing the costs and benefits of regulation.

Forty Years of International Mercury Policy: the 1980s and 1990s (Part 2 of 3)

By: Noelle Selin

My previous post looked at early international efforts to regulate mercury from the 1970s. This post looks at developments in the 1980s and 1990s, as science and policy communities began to realize that mercury was not just a regional, industrial pollutant but a global challenge. Scientific assessments showed that despite action in the 1970s, mercury levels remained high, and by the 1990s, new evidence emerged that mercury has health effects at low-doses (we’ll cover these in an upcoming post on mercury health effects). Revisions of some of the agreements from the 1970s also set new, ambitious goals. Actions in the 1980s and 1990s included:

  • The HELCOM Ministerial Declaration in 1988 [pdf], which stated a goal (never reached) to reduce total discharges of mercury and other hazardous substances by 50% by 1995, and a series of binding recommendations targeting mercury uses and emission sources
  • The Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR Convention, which updates the Oslo and Paris Conventions), 1992, with a goal of achieving natural background levels of hazardous substances by 2020
  • Further cooperation around the Mediterranean Sea included a 1995 update to the Barcelona Convention, and a 1996 Hazardous Wastes Protocol [pdf] that obligates parties to reduce and where possible eliminate the generation of hazardous wastes in the Mediterranean, including mercury waste, and a 1997 Strategic Action Programme under the Mediterranean Action Plan that sets a 2025 goal for complete phase-out of all input of mercury into the Mediterranean [pdf]
  • Mercury in hazardous wastes is covered by the Basel Convention (1989)

A major regional agreement on heavy metals (including mercury, cadmium and lead) completed in the 1990s was the Heavy Metals Protocol to the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP), an agreement that covers the U.S., Canada, western and eastern Europe, and Russia. The CLRTAP heavy metals protocol, completed at the same time as another protocol on persistent organic pollutants (POPs), set a strong precedent for global action on both POPs (eventually the Stockholm Convention) as well as mercury.

In the third and final post, we’ll look at the road towards the global treaty process beginning in the 2000s.

For more information on the history of mercury policy, see the following article: N. E. Selin and H. Selin, “Global Politics of Mercury Pollution: The Need for Multi-Scale Governance,” RECIEL 15 (3) 2006. [pdf]

Forty Years of International Mercury Policy: the 1970s (Part 1 of 3)

by Noelle Selin

While the treaty currently under negotiation will be the first global, legally-binding action to address mercury in the environment, it is certainly not the first international policy dealing with the substance. In fact, mercury has been the subject of multilateral cooperation since at least the 1970s. Here’s a summary of some of the actions way back in the disco era. Future posts will bring us through the 80s, 90s and 2000s.

Early international policies on mercury addressed contamination of regional seas such as the Baltic, the North-East Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the North American Great Lakes. Heavy metals were identified as pollutants of high concern at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. In 1973, the OECD urged its members to reduce anthropogenic releases of mercury to the environment to lowest possible levels. Other agreements from the 1970s that included reference to mercury and/or other heavy metals include:

  • International Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and other Matter (London Convention), 1972
  • Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping from Ships and Aircraft (Oslo Convention), 1972
  • Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Land-Based Sources (Paris Convention), 1973
  • Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area (Helsinki Convention)
  • Mediterranean Action Plan (1975) and Barcelona Convention (1976)
  • Convention on the Protection of the Rhine Against Chemical Pollution, 1976 [pdf]
  • Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (1972, 1978)

In addition to these agreements, the European Economic community also introduced its first mercury legislation in the 1970s. In general, mercury was treated in the 1970s as an industrial contaminant, similar to other chemical substances addressed on a national and regional basis. Stay tuned for a summary of the 1980s and 1990s, when international action on mercury grew in scale and scope.

For more information on the history of mercury policy, see the following article: N. E. Selin and H. Selin, “Global Politics of Mercury Pollution: The Need for Multi-Scale Governance,” RECIEL 15 (3) 2006. [pdf]

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.

Existing Domestic Mercury Regulations


by Leah Stokes and Amanda Giang

Many countries have existing regulations on mercury, whether on emissions from coal plants or on the use of mercury in products and processes. Here is a short summary of key mercury regulations in some of the world’s largest emitters: the US, the European Union (EU), China, India, and Canada.

United States (US)

Emissions and Releases: In the US, mercury is considered a Hazardous Air Pollutant under the Clean Air Act. During the 1990s, the Act was used to motivate limits on mercury emissions from medical and waste incinerators, leading to a 90% reduction in emissions from these sources.

In addition, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments aimed to include mercury emissions from coal plants, but these regulations took two decades to finalize. In December of 2011, the EPA began to regulate coal plants, the largest source of US air emissions, through intensity standards. Under this regulation, mercury emissions were limited for each unit of energy generated. This rule, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), is projected to reduce coal plant emissions by 90% by 2016.

In the US, direct and indirect releases of mercury into surface water are estimated to be 1.56 tonnes per year.

Products and Processes: In the past, the US used mercury in products and processes primarily for batteries, chlor-alkali production, and paint. According to the EPA, mercury use has been eliminated in most batteries and paint, but it is still used in electrical and measuring devices (e.g., thermometers). The US has also reduced its reliance on mercury in chlor-alkali production, but there are still some plants that use mercury in this process.

Most action on products and processes in the US has occurred at the state and local level. Many states have passed laws that restrict or ban mercury and require labeling of mercury-containing products. Ensuring that mercury containing products are recycled and do not end up in the waste-stream remains a key challenge.

Trade: The US banned mercury exports as of January 1, 2013.

Europe Union (EU)

Emissions and Releases: In the EU, the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive (2008/1/EC) regulates emissions from the metals, cement, and chemical industries and coal plants larger than 50MW. This regulation requires the use of best available techniques, but does not set specific emissions limits for mercury. Specific target values for ambient mercury concentrations may be established under Directive 2004/107/EC, which addresses other heavy metals as well.

In the EU, mercury releases from a single source of more than 1 kg per year to water and/or land must be reported.

Products and Processes: The EU prohibits or strictly controls mercury in the following products: batteries; electrical and electronic equipment; pesticides and biocides; cosmetics; wood preservatives; textile treatment agents; anti-fouling agents for boat hulls; and switches in vehicles. Mercury is being phased out of the chlor-alkali production process as well. For more information, see the EU’s Mercury Strategy FAQs.


Emissions and Releases: In 2011, China put out a national emission standard for mercury from coal plants and lead, zinc, and other metal production. The standard, which came into force in 2012, with full implementation to be achieved by 2015, limits mercury concentrations from coal plants to 0.03 mg/m3. The standard for the lead and zinc industries is 0.03 mg/L, and the standard for the copper, nickel, and cobalt industries is 0.05 mg/L.

China is also moving on mercury releases to water. Mercury discharge limits for urban sewage treatment plants are 0.001 mg/L.

Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining (ASGM:) China has banned the use of mercury in ASGM [doc]. However, given that ASGM in China occurs in the informal sector, as is the case globally, this ban may be difficult to enforce.


Products and processes: India has used a voluntary public-private partnership to successfully reduce mercury use in chlor-alkali production. Between 2001 and 2009, mercury used in chlor-alkali production declined by two-thirds with emissions to the environment reduced by 95%.


Emissions and Releases: Canada has a comprehensive risk management strategy for mercury. Canada sets provincial caps on mercury emissions from electrical power generation, metal smelters, cement producers, and waste incinerators. Canada also has a comprehensive inventory of emissions and releases, which indicates that in 2010 total releases to water and land were 259 kg and 99 kg respectively; these releases were much lower than emissions to air, which were 5,222 kg or 5.2 tonnes.

Products and processes: In 2011, Canada began to regulate the domestic manufacture, import, and sale of mercury-containing products including toys, food and health products, pesticides, lamps, and dental amalgam. This regulation is estimated to reduce the amount of mercury in products by 4.5 tonnes each year.

Other countries have emissions regulations as well. For example, Chile has introduced mercury-specific emissions limits of 0.1 mg/m3. In addition, given the stringent regulations for particulate matter (30 mg/m3), further mercury co-benefits are expected.

If you know of another country with emission regulations for mercury, please add a comment to the page or let us know by emailing us at INC5@mit.edu.