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A new treaty to control mercury…could be good for climate too

Laurent Granier's picture

courtesy: UNEP

Early in the morning on Saturday, January 19, 2013, negotiators from around 140 countries completed negotiations for the Mercury Treaty that will be adopted later this year in Japan. It will be known as the Minamata Convention, in deference to the victims of mercury poisoning from industrial pollution that occurred when residents of the Minamata Bay ingested contaminated fish and shellfish in the 1950s.

The Convention that took four years to negotiate under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) joins the ranks of a number of treaties that address chemicals and wastes. It is the first treaty to specifically address heavy metals.

Why is the international community concerned about mercury? Mercury is typically released into the environment in metallic, or “elemental”, form, or as an inorganic salt. In elemental form, it easily vaporises and can be transported great distances worldwide.  When deposited in the environment, mercury eventually can be transformed to its organic forms, including Methylmercury, which is highly toxic and readily accumulates and bioconcentrates in animals and humans. Eventually, mercury settles in cold climates and bioconcentrates up the food chains to the point that Indigenous Peoples in the North that rely on traditional foods are exposed to damaging high levels.

One of the reasons heavy metals are difficult to address is that they are mobilised through human activities, but they are also released in the environment through natural processes, for example through volcanic eruptions or in deep-sea vents. Nevertheless, estimates are that at any given time, 90% of the mercury cycling in the environment is linked to human activities – hence the need for action. The recently released UNEP Global Mercury Assessment 2013 outlines major sources of emissions, geographic and temporal trends, and behaviour in the environment. 

Moreover, international action is warranted because of the transboundary dimension of the issue. In the United States for example, it is estimated that half the mercury in fish caught in rivers comes from anthropogenic Continental sources – predominantly from coal burning – whilst the other half represents emissions from Asia. At the same time, by some estimates, approximately 50% of US releases are deposited beyond the country’s border. This is textbook justification for international action.

Doha: keeping hope alive - just

Rachel Kyte's picture


COP President Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah gavels through the decision text. Photo courtesy IISD

The UN climate conference in Doha this past week kept the fight to combat global warming alive – 194 countries agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol and to put in place a new agreement by 2015. The extension avoids a major setback in climate negotiations, but it does not fully reflect the urgency of the problems facing the warming planet.

To understand the true scale of those problems, read the new report Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided. Its review of the latest climate science provides a powerful snapshot of what the future could be and warns that the world is on path to a 4°C (7.2°F) warmer world by century’s end if we don’t take action.

The report was referenced repeatedly during COP 18 and is one of several reports helping to put science at the center of policy making.

As is often the case in large international conferences these days, the greatest signs of momentum in Qatar were not inside the negotiating rooms but in the meeting halls where the informal process was underway. The World Bank played a key role in several agreements that will form a part of our ongoing commitment to step up to the climate challenge.

Working Coalitions

Increasingly like-minded coalitions are forming, across dividing lines of developed and developing countries, public, private sectors and civil society, in order to get on with the business of emissions reductions. One highlight of the conference was the meeting of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, a remarkable group of countries united to reduce SLCPs, short-lived climate pollutants - methane, HFCs, black carbon.

Growing Cities, Healthy Cities

Charles Feinstein's picture

Ten years ago, the first Better Air Quality (BAQ) conference brought policy makers, experts, and advocates to Hong Kong to review the status of air quality in Asia and to recommend how to improve it. Today we are here once again to kick off the seventh BAQ in ten years, organized by the Clean Air Asia (formerly Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities), Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department, and Hong Kong Polytechnic University.  The theme of BAQ 2012 is “Growing Cities, Healthy Cities,”

Since the first meeting, we can say with certainty that the average air quality in Asian cities have improved despite their economic growth. The yearly average PM10 (particulate matter less than 10 microns) concentration for cities in the about 20 Asian countries engaged in the Clean Air Initiative for Asia was above 80 µg/m3 (microgram per m3) in year 2000. Now it is around 50 µg/m3. Although there are huge differences in air quality between countries and cities within the Asia region, the overall trend over the last decade is that most of the countries and cities have shown progress. 

Most Asian countries have established, tightened and expanded ambient air quality standards (AAQS). A decade ago, only few Asian countries had standards, now there is regular air quality monitoring and air control programs.

A Wake Up Call

Rachel Kyte's picture

Photo courtesy IISD

This week, negotiators from nearly 200 countries have gathered at the UN Climate Conference in Doha to try to hammer out an agreement on a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.

Once again, the gathering of the parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change highlights the lack of action on climate change, and the subsequent threat to the prosperity of millions. Climate change may roll back decades of development.

Several reports in the last month have reached the same conclusion. First, the science is unequivocal: humans are the cause of global warming, and major changes can be observed today. Second, time for action is running out – if we don’t act, we could experience a 4°C warmer world this century, with catastrophic consequences.

The World Bank commissioned the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics to better understand the potential impact of a 4°C warmer world on developing countries. Turn Down the Heat provides a stark picture of the state of the planet in a 4°C warmer world and the disruptive impacts on agriculture, water resources, ecosystems and human health. It also gives a snapshot of changes already observed. 

Global mean temperatures are about 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels. Current greenhouse gas emission pledges place the world on a trajectory for warming of well over 3°C, even if the pledges are fully met. 

A tribute to John Hoffman, an unsung champion of the global environment

Alan Miller's picture

The accomplishments of mid-level bureaucrats, particularly in this time of anti-government sentiment, are rarely celebrated. It was therefore striking to see major newspapers devote significant space to obituaries for John Hoffman, a long-time friend and former colleague who did as much as any one individual I know to design and implement measures to protect the global environment.

I first met John as a young lawyer in the late 1970s, while working on the then new issue of ozone depletion – he for US EPA, me for an environmental advocacy group. We quickly became close confidants working to leverage a unilateral US phase-out of CFCs to achieve an effective international agreement, the Montreal Protocol (recently celebrated at events hosted by the World Bank).

Before almost anyone, he saw the linkages between ozone depletion and climate change, and used his office to produce the first major government report on climate policy – “Can We Delay a Greenhouse Warming?” – in 1983. He was equally adept at highly technical matters such as the creation of a single metric for comparing the impact of ozone depleting substances and policy issues such as the design of environmental regulations. 

Costa Rica scripts a new chapter in forest carbon finance

Benoît Bosquet's picture

Thick cloudy skies subdued the sunlight on an autumnal day in Paris. That did not stop the group of representatives from the public and private sector attending the 5th Carbon Fund Meeting of the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) from making a decision that is a major milestone. Costa Rica is set to become the first country to access performance-based payments through the FCPF. This is the first time a national program is being supported by carbon funds in this global initiative of 54 countries and organizations, heralding a new phase in forest carbon finance.

This decision is a strong vote of support for Costa Rica’s ambitious plan to become the first “carbon neutral” country by 2021. Conserving forests and planting trees that capture carbon dioxide plays a large role in the national endeavor.

An interesting feature of Costa Rica’s proposal to the Carbon Fund is the quasi-national scope of the program that would be implemented in a mosaic approach on additional 341,000 ha of mainly privately owned land. Two-thirds of the targeted area is degraded land that the country aims to restore with reforestation, secondary growth and agroforestry, and one-third is old growth forest that will be protected from deforestation. The resulting emission reductions are estimated at 29.5 million tons of CO2. Close to half of these emission reductions (12.6 million tons of CO2) would be offered to the Carbon Fund, and would require an estimated financing of $63 million (assuming a price of $5 per ton of CO2).

How a small grant turned Humbo green

Edward Felix Dwumfour's picture

A comparative picture of the Humbo region in February 2002 and March 2010.

A number of years ago, I started a journey with seven poor communities located about 380 kilometres southwest of Addis Ababa, by a mountain called Humbo. The idea was to allow a degraded mountain to regenerate, and the communities would earn carbon credits for their efforts.

I still hear this phrase echoing in my ears: “With the meager amount of resources they have, this is an impossible agenda”. But the communities were stubborn and dedicated, and last week, the project was issued 73,339 carbon credits (temporary Certified Emission Reductions, tCERs) for their efforts. Similar payments will add up to $700,000 over the next 10 years from the BioCarbon Fund.

The Humbo communities wanted to see a transformation because they knew that their lands had been stripped as a result of unregulated cattle grazing and massive clearance of vegetation to meet their excessive demand for timber, firewood and charcoal. Soil erosion and flooding had intensified as a result. They could see their farmlands increasingly covered with silt, cobbles and boulders. Above all, they could attest that their farmlands were losing fertility, becoming unproductive and yields were down.

It’s a make-or-break decade for action on climate change

Rachel Kyte's picture


Photo: Climate Group 

As world leaders descended on Manhattan this week for the UN General Assembly, the blocks around 44th street got ever more gridlocked and noise decibels from the omnipresent motorcades tested the patience of locals and visitors alike.

Away from the main hubbub, Monday I joined Tony Blair, Prince Albert of Monaco, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and a number of Chairman and CEOs from top companies to talk about climate change and efforts to get the world onto a cleaner growth path.

Tuesday, hosted by Bloomberg L.P., I was in conversation with Commissioner Connie Hedegaard and Cristiana Figueres. The discussion covered the role of the UNFCCC past, present and future in what has happened and needs to happen to arrest climate change. From the need to change the narrative, accounting systems, risk appetites and ambition, to whether the convention is an umbrella for action, or should encourage actions outside its framework, to where will the funding come from for adaptation and resilience as climate change bears its teeth, it was a great conversation showing sensible hope.

Climate Week, an annual event here in New York City organized by The Climate Group is calling for an American “Clean Revolution.” At their opening session they issued a report saying such a revolution could grow the US economy by $3 trillion. 

While climate change seems to be a “non-issue” in the US election, jobs and competitiveness are not. Competitiveness in the global green economy is not an issue for the US alone. 

Faced with conclusive scientific evidence of the impacts of climate change, especially on the world's poorest, and a new global agreement some years off, we're in a ‘make-or-break’ decade for action on global climate change.

Celebrating 25 Years of the Montreal Protocol - and Looking Ahead

Rachel Kyte's picture

The world’s leaders set a high bar when they adopted the Montreal Protocol, which has helped protect the Earth’s protective ozone layer for the last 25 years. Even with its ambitious goals, the treaty won universally ratification – 197 parties have agreed to legally binding reduction targets to phase out ozone-depleting gases, and they have stuck to them.

The result: we, as a global community, have almost completely phased out the use of 97 substances that were depleting the ozone layer.

It’s a success worth celebrating, but we can’t rest on our laurels. We phased out CFCs, once used for cooling most refrigerators on the planet, but some of their replacement gases have become a climate change problem we still have to contend with.

The CFCs story showed that the world can move at speed and scale to reduce environmental threats. Scientists realized that CFCs were depleting the ozone layer in 1974. The ozone hole over Antarctica became common knowledge in the 1980s and helped drive global action which led to the Montreal Protocol being adopted in 1987.

Buying time as the climate clock ticks on

Mary Barton-Dock's picture

 

We’ve all had our moments of frustration with the unending negotiations on mechanisms to control carbon dioxide emissions. In the last Conference of Parties held at Durban in 2011, it was decided that the global deal for the post Kyoto framework will only be reached by 2015.

Meanwhile, the climate clock is ticking: countries continue to face the impacts of climate change with the poorest being hardest hit. Science has shed the spotlight on a “parallel track” which could help us deal with part of the climate change problem in a faster, cheaper way – it is tackling short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), primarily black carbon, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

These pollutants, while being extremely potent in terms of their global warming potential are short-lived in the atmosphere. For example, black carbon persists in the atmosphere for about two weeks (compared to CO2 that lives for up to 100 years) and is 917 times more warming than CO2 over a 100 year timeframe (and 3,320 times over 20 years).So, action on SCLPs can help buy time in addressing the more important and longer-term greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

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