Category Archives: Amanda Giang

How to Regulate Mercury in 6 Easy Steps (Part 2 of 4): A practical approach to implementation in practice

by Philip Wolfe and Amanda Giang

Philip and Amanda here with a handy guide for implementing a global treaty on mercury. In Part 1, we gave a brief walk through the overall process of developing a global mercury policy. In Part 2, we look at what issues are important when it comes to deciding how to implement a global regulation.

It is all well and good to acknowledge that mercury poses a problem, but it is another thing entirely to actually do something about it. Even if we can get everyone to agree about what the most important threats to health and safety are, we still have to work out how exactly we are going to address these threats, and how we are going to make sure that people follow through. Furthermore, we have set all of this up in a way that is feasible for everyone.  We referred to this issue in Part 1 as the “implementation problem” (it sounds like an old-timey euphemism, we know, but it is helpful way of framing the issue).

The “implementation problem” is complex, but thankfully it is not intractable! We think that one nice way to approach it is by breaking up these interlocking issues into five overarching questions.

1. How will the convention be implemented in practice?

This question addresses all of the procedural details. Who oversees what? Who is in charge of funds? Who gets to vote? When does the treaty enter into force (i.e., how many countries need to ratify the treaty domestically before implementation starts)? A lot of these issues may seem pretty inconsequential (or bureaucratically, mind-numbingly boring, to put it mildly), but don’t be fooled! It’s not as easy as simply setting dates and boilerplate international policy cutting-and-pasting. For one, we need to be concerned about policy legacy. When parties make choices in one environmental regulation, it can set a precedent for future regulations with large consequences; likewise, we have to look at whether policy-makers are making smart choices here or if they are just doing something because it worked before. This question can also have important political and equity implications, especially when it comes to distributing oversight and funding responsibilities.

2. How can the convention ensure effectiveness?

The world doesn’t just make treaties as an excuse for a bunch of important people to practice their signatures. The goal is to solve a global problem, and to do it as effectively as possible. Trouble is, there’s often a tradeoff between feasibility and effectiveness. Make a regulation too stringent, and it becomes impossible. Make it too lenient, and suddenly you have spent a lot of time making a policy that does not adequately address the environmental problems at hand. Effectiveness is about balancing these needs both for individual parties and for the global community as a whole.

As science policy enthusiasts, we’re also particularly interested in how one actually goes about monitoring and measuring effectiveness, and how science can inform decisions about these activities. What do the indicators specified in the treaty actually tell us about the state of the environmental problem at hand, and are they scientifically justified?

3. How can the convention ensure compliance?

Imagine this: The nation of Theoreticalistan produces a lot of mercury emissions through its widget-making industry. All of the other countries of the world bear the burden of these emissions. The world would see benefits of $100 million if Theoreticalistan invested in clean-widget technology. However, Theoreticalistan is a developing nation and does not have the infrastructure to develop this technology, which would cost $50 million. If the world could support Theoreticalistan through capacity building and technology transfer, everyone could end up better off! Theoreticalistan gets an improved industry (funded at least in part by outside support) and the world sees the benefits in mercury reduction ($100 million benefit – $50 million cost of development = $50 million net benefit). However, how does the world make sure Theoreticalistan keeps up its end of the bargain? And how can Theoreticalistan be sure it will get appropriate support? As with effectiveness, it will take monitoring, inventorying, and evaluating progress at each step of the way to achieve this. How we embed these systems into the convention is an important factor in the treaty’s ultimate success. If you’re interested in this topic, there’s a growing body of literature that talks about compliance systems and active compliance management: check out Antonia Chayes et al.’s (1995) “Active Compliance Management in Environmental Treaties” and Peter Sand’s (2001) “A Century of Green Lessons: the contribution of nature conservation regimes to global governance.

4. How will this treaty interface with other international agreements and bodies?

Countries are already a part of complex inter-woven fabric of bilateral and international agreements, and that space is getting more crowded and more confusing every year. Any mercury convention will have to interface with these existing regulations and institutions. The key tension is how to define an agreement space that encompasses as much of the problem as possible while not violating or stepping on the toes of other agreements. Some of these agreements may be directly related to hazardous substances and pollutants, or they could be broadly related to economics and trade. Here are just a few treaties and intergovernmental bodies that we expect to be relevant to the mercury convention:

For more info on these linkages, watch for Amanda’s forthcoming blog post “Global environmental governance – where does mercury fit?”

5. How will this convention appropriately address individual parties’ conceptions of sovereignty?

Different countries will have different domestic laws. While it may be feasible for the United States to pass a law that says “All widget-making must be mercury free,” it may not be possible for the government of, say, Theoreticalistan to do the same. Likewise, individual countries, especially those with significant economic or military power, may be loath to give up that power to an international body. The sovereignty issue has received national attention in the United States recently when the Senate failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilities after Senate Republicans claimed that such a convention would impinge on our sovereignty. A good primer on different sides can be found at the New York Times Room for Debate.

Still with us? Maybe? A little bit? Don’t lose hope. It’s a tough road from problem to treaty, and there are myriad difficulties and quagmires to wade through along the way. But if you’ve made it through Parts 1 and 2, you’re pretty much an expert already. In Part 3 we’re going to introduce and define some of the biggest concepts and themes we expect to come up during the negotiations in Geneva.

Stay tuned!

Amanda Giang studies how we quantify the benefits of environmental policies in the face of uncertainty. She is terrified of Legos. Philip Wolfe studies how people make policy decisions in one environmental domain (like air quality) when there are tradeoffs in another domain (like noise pollution). His spirit animal is the puffin.

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

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

By Amanda Giang and Philip Wolfe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amanda Giang studies how we quantify the benefits of environmental policies in the face of uncertainty. She is terrified of Legos. Philip Wolfe studies how people make policy decisions in one environmental domain (like air quality) when there are tradeoffs in another domain (like noise pollution). His spirit animal is the puffin.