Much done, much still to do

Jim Willis gives a progress report on integrating the global chemicals agenda with sustainable development

Chemicals are essential for development and everyday life. Modern fertilizers and pesticides have been a boon to agriculture and helped us feed our growing populations. Chemicals have served medicine in many ways, ranging from pharmaceuticals to the equipment and materials used in hospitals. From transportation to information technology to entertainment, our quality of life would not be the same without a healthy chemicals and manufacturing industry.

The global chemical industry is growing astonishingly fast. There are some 70,000 different chemicals on the market with 1,500 new ones being introduced every year.

But as we have come to learn, chemicals are not all good. Some have been implicated in disorders and diseases, including cancer, reproductive disorders and failures, birth defects, neurobehavioural disorders and impaired immune functions. Many thousands of accidental poisonings result from the inappropriate use of highly toxic pesticide formulations, or their use in locations where protective equipment is unavailable or unused. Chemicals deplete the ozone layer, cause climate change, and affect the world’s biodiversity. They accumulate in poorly managed stockpiles and waste sites. Many persist in the environment and bioaccumulate, leading to ever increasing levels in humans and wildlife. Yet these are just some of the effects we know: there is not enough data on most of the chemicals in use today to understand their risks properly. And basic protection measures for consumers, workers and the environment are often lacking.

Although the problems had often been recognized nationally or regionally, the first integrated policy response to them began in 1992 with the Rio Earth Summit. Chapter 19 of Agenda 21 identified several key areas needing increased attention. Policy and coordination mechanisms were created to bring the key players together. The Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC) – involving UNEP, the World Health Organization, International Labour Organisation (ILO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Industrial Development Organization, United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the OECD – brought together major intergovernmental programmes on chemical safety. The Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety (IFCS) provided a forum where government and non-government stakeholders could address such issues. Within these partnerships, UNEP provides leadership for the global environmentally sound management of chemicals, while other organizations provide leadership within their particular areas of expertise.

Building blocks
The Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure was adopted in 1998. Jointly administered by UNEP and FAO, it provides a first line of defence in controlling the risks from hazardous pesticides and chemicals. It addresses the international trade in chemicals, and provides a mechanism whereby developing countries can keep dangerous ones from being exported into their territory.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), adopted in 2001, aims to protect human health and the environment from this particularly dangerous group of chemicals. It provides the means to prohibit their production and use, and to reduce and – where feasible – ultimately eliminate their release to the environment. It currently covers 12 chemicals, but has a process for adding new POPs. It also contains a financial mechanism.

These new treaties join the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes, ILO Conventions #170 and #174 aimed at protecting workers, and several regional agreements, in a suite of powerful tools to protect people and the environment from toxic chemicals.

Beyond these legally binding instruments there have been many recent developments that help us better to understand and protect ourselves and wildlife from toxics. These include:

  • A recently concluded globally harmonized system for classifying and labelling chemicals.

  • Expanded risk assessment initiatives, such as those conducted under the OECD, to develop needed health and environmental hazard data and risk information on many additional chemicals.

  • Expanded capacity-building and assistance to developing countries and countries with economies in transition on POPs and other chemicals – including the prospect of financial assistance available through donors and the Global Environment Facility.

  • Identifying and disposing of the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of obsolete and unwanted pesticides and other chemicals that have accumulated worldwide.

  • The initiation of a global assessment of mercury.

  • The recent Bahia Declaration, and priorities for action beyond 2000 adopted by the IFCS. The Declaration is forward-looking, identifying several key new targets for advancing the work begun by Chapter 19 of Agenda 21.

Moving forward
Despite the excellent work carried out since the Rio Earth Summit, much remains to be done. Increasing globalization and the enormous market for chemicals – and the products in which they are used – mean that safety programmes must be strengthened and steps taken to integrate them more smartly into sustainable development.

A crucial first step will be for countries to ratify the Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, amongst others, so they can be effectively implemented.
Basic protection measures for consumers, workers and the environment are often lacking
Discussions are taking place in the context of international environmental governance on how the various international chemicals-related activities and conventions can work together more closely for our common benefit. Initially, the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions are under discussion. Much is likely to be gained from this process, not only in terms of improving their performance globally, but also in strengthening the operations and impacts of activities at regional and national level – such as Basel regional centres, national cleaner production centres, and programmes to assist enforcement and compliance. The clustering process could also help better to integrate ‘life cycle’ management of chemicals and wastes into the setting of national priorities, as well as to leverage scarce capacity-building resources for chemicals and waste programmes.

Many activities are under way internationally that will give greater effect to our concerted efforts to protect health and the environment; their success depends on the involvement of all stakeholders, and the reflection of their interests, aspirations and concerns. A possible mechanism for bringing these together is through developing a strategic approach to international chemicals management. This possibility will be discussed at the Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Cartagena in 2002. Such an approach could, inter alia, provide a policy and procedural framework for addressing both ongoing and emerging issues of international concern. And it could better serve to interweave the necessary policy, coordination and sustainable development linkages. If undertaken, it should be devised in an open, transparent and inclusive manner, in cooperation with the IOMC and the IFCS, and in partnership with the full range of stakeholders. It should not seek to override the contributions already being made by other bodies, but rather to make the best possible use of them. Without that, it is likely that the chemicals agenda will be disjointed, responding to immediate pressures and vested-interest agendas, and will not allow us to reap the greatest benefits that the potential chemicals can offer to sustainable development

Jim Willis is Director of UNEP Chemicals.

PHOTOGRAPH: Wenren Yang/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Open doors | Progress and possibilities | A further step | Achieving the vision | Wake-up call | Special feature: Security in a shrinking world | 2001 UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize | Competition | Global housekeeping | Disrupting life’s messages | Ubiquitous and dangerous | Briefing: Much done, much still to do | Briefing: Getting on top of the POPs | Briefing: First line of defence | Reversing the burden of proof

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Chemicals 1997
Issue on Hazardous Waste 1999
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population, waste and chemicals