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GC Today - 20 February 2009


UNEP Making a Difference - Narrative by Per Bakken

I joined the Chemicals Branch as Head 16 months ago after many years of working, with various environmental issues outside and inside UNEP, including chemicals management including environmental risks of hazardous substances and a series of international negotiation assignments for international treaties. I joined the team just before the first meeting of the Open ended Working Group on mercury, the outcome of the last Governing Council.

Work on mercury has been going on within UNEP since 2001, and mercury has been acknowledged as a substance of global concern since 2003. Mercury poses an enormous challenge for a number of reasons. It is extremely hazardous, causing permanent damage to the nervous system and brain, particularly in infants and young children. Mercury is unique, because it is a liquid at room temperature, and it easily forms a gas. Like other metals, it cannot be broken down, and therefore has to be handled differently to other hazardous wastes.

While governments have agreed that it is a problem of global concern, and that action to address this is needed, it has not been until this week that they have been able to agree on how to deliver a fully comprehensive, coordinated program of action. The agreement to develop a legally binding instrument on mercury, taken at this Government Council, opens the door to provide a structured mechanism to manage mercury. This agreement will not be easy to deliver, and the development will take some time.

Fortunately, some structured programs are already in place, with the UNEP Global Mercury Partnership already established, and working to deliver concrete actions to reduce the risk from mercury. This partnership, which provides a coordination mechanism for activities on a number of sectors, involves a full range of interested partners, not only including governments but also environmental non-governmental organizations and industry, as well as other intergovernmental organizations and academia. A strengthened to strengthen the immediate action has also been taken this week, and the partnership will provide a main vehicle to deliver the interim activities which have been called for by governments.

The major challenges ahead for both governments and UNEP for the next few years will be coordinating the delivery of a strengthened program of interim activities while negotiating the comprehensive agreement on mercury. The range of sectors in which mercury is used and releases increases the challenges, and highlights the need for coordination ad creative solutions. Clearly we need to think out of the box. Preparations for the negotiations, in particular to ensure that countries are in a position to participate effectively are seen as a vital, but very extensive task. Also, while governments agree broadly on the need for international legal action to address mercury, there are many divergent views on the details of how this should work. Financial arrangements to support developing counties also needs to be agreed upon Maintaining the cooperative spirit shown during the Governing Council will assist in resolving these differences, and result in the development of an agreement which meets the needs of all.