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Lessons for climate change

Learning from a landmark mercury control deal

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

The recent adoption of a new and binding international pact by over 140 countries for limiting harmful emissions from mercury is a significant step towards extending the global combat against environmental pollution to health protection. This comes at a time when pessimism reigns about whether it is possible to achieve international co-ordination in matters related to environmental protection. It is, thus, a significant reminder that political will can overcome deep structural divisions. Implementing this agreement will not be easy; mercury is widely used in a variety of commercial activities. Coal-based power plants, mining operations, especially gold and zinc mining, and electronic items are among the largest contributors to mercury pollution. Shifting to mercury-free technologies in these areas is bound to be cost-intensive. Unsurprisingly, many countries, including the US, were originally disinclined to cap mercury emissions. India played a key role in thrashing out the pact during four years of hard negotiation.

The treaty, which was named the Minamata Convention, after the Japanese city where over 3,000 people suffered deformities owing to mercury pollution in the mid-20th century, commits countries to banning by 2020 the production, import and export of a large number of products containing mercury. The items to be phased out include medical equipment such as thermometers and devices measuring blood pressure; newly introduced energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs); several kinds of electronic equipment; switches and thermostats; and even some soaps and cosmetics like common types of mascara. At the same time, however, the treaty grants several exemptions in cases where mercury-free alternatives are not available, including critical vaccines in which mercury is used as a preservative. The World Health Organisation has declared that there are no safe limits for the consumption of mercury and its compounds, which can damage the nerves and internal organs. High levels of mercury in seawater can enter the food chain through some varieties of fish.

Although the list of exemptions is not small, the treaty certainly provides the platform for stringent mercury control measures as new technologies and alternatives become available. Even now, efforts are afoot to replace mercury with safer alternatives wherever possible. Mercury-based conventional thermometers are already being replaced with alcohol-filled temperature-measuring instruments; CFLs are giving way to highly energy-efficient solid state lamps that use light-emitting diodes (LED lamps). It is also noteworthy that the mercury treaty has stipulated a funding arrangement for helping developing countries to switch over to mercury-free technologies. In fact, at least three countries – Japan, Norway and Switzerland – have lost little time in committing fast-track funding to get the treaty going. Ratification of the Minamata Convention should be speedy. And the lessons of the negotiating process – that quick funding can help bring developing countries into line, and that where developed nations fail to lead, India and China must pick up the slack – should also be applied to climate change talks.

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First Published: Tue, February 12 2013. 21:14 IST