Global mercury emissions treaty agreed

Minamata Convention treaty placing legally-binding limits on mercury emissions has been signed by more than 140 countries

More than 140 countries have agreed legal limits on mercury emissions after talks at a United Nations-backed convention in Geneva on Saturday (January 19).

Limits have been agreed on the supply of and trade in mercury; its use in products (such as thermometers, measuring devices and batteries) and industrial processes; and the level of emissions from gold mining, power plants and metal production facilities.

Janez Potočnik said the treaty will bring benefits to populations across the globe

Janez Potočnik said the treaty will bring benefits to populations across the globe

After four years of negotiation, the Minamata Convention treaty will be officially signed at a ceremony in October in the Japanese town it is named after, which was hit by sever mercury pollution more than 50 years ago.

The agreement comes after a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, ‘Mercury: Time to act’, found that mercury emissions from developing countries were on the increase due to mining and coal burning.

Emissions from gold mining (mercury is used to separate gold from the rock) and coal-fired power stations represent the biggest source of mercury pollution worldwide, according to UNEP. However, limits have been places on mercury emissions from these large industrial facilities as well as from waste incinerators and cement clinkers.

Signatories of the Treaty will also be required to reduce and if possible eliminate the use of mercury by small-scale gold miners, while commitments to public awareness campaigns and promotion of mercury free alternatives are also part of the Treaty.


European Commissioner for the environment, Janez Potočnik, said: “We have reached a robust, balanced and dynamic environmental agreement. Whilst the EU has an overarching strategy for controlling mercury at all stages of the mercury life-cycle, such controls are unfortunately lacking in many parts of the world. This new Treaty will bring benefits to all populations around the world, including the citizens of the EU given the long distances that mercury can travel in the air. Pregnant women, infants and children are at particular risk from mercury in the food-chain and this Treaty will bring about significant decreases to their exposure to this toxic substance.”

He continued: “It would be unrealistic to expect more than one hundred countries around the world, with economies and living conditions significantly different to those of European citizens, to simply live up to our environmental standards here and now. But the new Treaty is a forceful driver towards a comprehensive mercury phase-out, and we are proud to see that many EU concepts and ideas have made its way into the text. The EU has fought for a global Mercury Treaty for almost seven years — and now we are there.”

Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, of NGO the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and co-coordinator of its Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) also welcomed the Treaty: “Some of these steps were unthinkable just a couple of years ago. Now, alternatives exist for most all products containing mercury. The treaty sends the right market signal and will eventually lead to less exposures worldwide.”


However, there are concerns that the treaty does not go far enough in reducing mercury emissions, as new facilities will have five years to meet the new limits, while existing facilities will have as long as 10 years.

Michael T. Bender, who also co-ordinates the ZMWG, said: “Adoption of a global legal agreement on mercury is a major accomplishment. Yet the instrument is hampered by weak controls on mercury emissions from major sources like coal-fired power plants.”

According to World Health Organization (WHO) guidance: “Mercury is highly toxic to human health, posing a particular threat to the development of the (unborn) child and early in life. The inhalation of mercury vapour can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and may be fatal.”

More information about the Mercury Treaty is available on the UNEP website.

An international conference regarding the pollutant, ‘Mercury 2013’, is due to take place in Edinburgh at the end of July (see story).


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