The Minamata Convention on Mercury is an international treaty designed to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds. The year 2020 is a milestone for the Convention – it is when parties are required to cease the manufacture, import and export of many mercury-containing products listed in the Convention. Monika Stankiewicz, Executive Secretary of the Convention, reflects on its impact.
Mercury has been mined and utilized since ancient times. People used it in burial ceremonies, in paints in their houses, as a sedative, an aphrodisiac and a contraceptive, in cosmetics, to treat syphilis, to name a few. Alchemists believed that mercury was the component in all metals that gave them their “metal-ness.”
The chemical properties of mercury make it popular for many uses. It is the only common metal, which is liquid at ordinary temperature, it has high density and amalgamates easily with many metals, such as gold, silver, and tin.
If only people in the past knew what we know today. Health effects of metal and especially of its more toxic and bio-accumulative form called methylmercury, are devasting. It can damage brain functions, nervous system and is especially dangerous to women and unborn children since it is transmitted through the placenta.
Over the last decades, scientific evidence about the environmental fate of mercury and its compounds has grown tremendously. Past and present human activities have increased total atmospheric mercury concentrations by about 450% above natural levels (UNEP, 2019). Mercury from human activities can now be found in the most remote areas, in marine mammals and fish in the Arctic and at the bottom of the Mariana Trench—the deepest oceanic trench on the planet.
Despite all this evidence, mercury use continues – it is used to extract gold from ore on four continents and in certain products and industrial processes in countries around the world. But the scientific knowledge has not been produced in vain.
In 2013, a new treaty, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, was adopted by a global community under the auspices of UNEP. The Convention is named after Minamata Bay in Japan to remember the lessons of the tragic health damage by industrial mercury pollution in the 1950s and 1960s.
The aim of the treaty is to protect the environment and the human health from anthropogenic emissions and releases of the toxic heavy metal. It regulates the entire life cycle of mercury – its supply, trade, use, emissions, releases, storage, and the management of waste and contaminated sites.
This new piece of international law entered into force on 16 August 2017 and it already has 123 Parties, with new countries joining all the time.
2020 is a major deadline in the Convention. By the end of this year, Parties are required to cease the manufacture, import and export of many mercury-containing products listed in the Convention. These products are in every-day use and include batteries, switches and relays, certain types of lamps, cosmetics, pesticides, biocides and topical antiseptics, and certain types of measuring devices such as thermometers and manometers. Mercury use in two major manufacturing processes, Chlor-alkali industry and acetaldehyde production, is being phased out as well, along with restricting use in other industrial processes.
Science will continue to be instrumental to ensure effective and cost-efficient implementation of the Convention by its Parties. For instance, we know that artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is the largest user and emitter of mercury into the environment globally, accounting for 37% of total consumption and 38% of total anthropogenic emissions in 2015 (UNEP, 2019).
The Minamata Convention Parties work to reduce, and where feasible eliminate, the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, without pushing the often-informal sector underground. This is done primarily through formalization, including improving transparency and accountability in global gold supply chains. ASGM generates income for an estimated 10-15 million miners and another 100 million or more in the secondary economy and is thus an essential focus of economic recovery from COVID-19 and building back better.
Apart from the intentional use of mercury in processes and products, industrial activities to produce power and other commodities are a major source of mercury contributing to air pollution. Mercury emissions can be controlled by a wide range of technologies and best practices, including many which reduce other air pollutants at the same time. Shifting away from coal is an effective measure too.
For many years, four behavioural factors – unhealthy diets, tobacco-smoking, harmful use of alcohol and physical inactivity – were cited as the top risk factors for non-communicable diseases. In 2018, the United Nations High-level Meeting on non-communicable diseases included air pollution as a fifth risk factor. Non-communicable diseases, respiratory diseases included, currently account for the deaths of seven in every 10 people worldwide. A correlation between the level of air pollution and the number of COVID-19 cases does not come as a surprise (WEF, 2020).
In implementing the Minamata Convention, we are all working to reach the Sustainable Development Goals. Coral might be back in once heavily-polluted Minamata Bay in Japan, after decades of restoration. However, Minamata Bay people still suffer from past methyl-mercury poisoning. Building back better is also about creating a world where people can live in good health for generations to come.
We celebrate the third anniversary of the Convention with the great enthusiasm that we can #MakeMercuryHistory.
Day-to-Day Items That Can Now Be Made Using Organic Materials Only
According to Pew Research, three-quarters of Americans are concerned about helping improve the environment.
Unfortunately, only one in every five Americans is willing to make an effort to change the negative impacts on the environment. A key reason why this happens is that many people have no idea where to start when it comes to saving mother earth.
But did you know that you can be a hero just by substituting some of the essential items you use every day with eco-friendly products?
If you’re in doubt, here are a few everyday items that you can substitute with their readily available eco-friendly alternatives.
1. Reusable Grocery Bags
Every year, an estimated one trillion plastic bags are used globally. Most of these bags end up in landfills, where they take forever to degrade.
The use of recyclable shopping bags can reduce plastic waste without any inconvenience on your part.
Unlike bags made of plastics, recyclable shopping bags decay faster due to their natural materials. Being reusable also means that they last longer, which allows you to save money while saving the planet.
2. Eco-friendly Blankets
A comfortable blanket that also eases your ecological footprint worries will definitely give you a restful sleep. Blankets made from recyclable materials are environmentally friendly as they leave less synthetic fillings on the environment.
A eucalyptus blanket is an excellent example of an eco-friendly blanket. These blankets are soft and subtle as they are made from a poly microfiber eucalyptus fabric. Unlike traditional beddings, these eco-friendly blankets keep 50 plastic bottles away from landfills, which is much better for our environment.
3. Recyclable Straws
Americans use around 500 million plastic straws daily, which could fill over 125 million school buses.
Plastic straws are made from polypropylene, a dangerous chemical that affects our estrogen levels. The disposal of these plastic straws also introduces a lot of plastic waste into the environment.
But you can now substitute your plastic straws with reusable stainless steel straws. We also have biodegradable straws in the market made from bamboo sticks, coconut leaves, cane stems, or paper.
4. Organic Sanitary Towels
Organic sanitary pads are gaining popularity as they have fewer dyes and additives. They are also safer for the environment.
Most of the modern sanitary pads are manufactured from plastics or their derivatives. Many women complain that the perfumes and dyes often used on these pads irritate their sensitive skin. This has seen many ladies turn to organic pads.
Most organic sanitary towels are made of cotton cloth or other biodegradable materials. Others have a plant-based top material made of wood, bamboo, jute palp, or banana. This makes them free from plastics, chemical dyes, and additives. The organic sanitary towels are also more comfortable, sustainable, and eco-friendly. Since they are also compostable, their use reduces the accumulation of plastic waste on our planet.
The above four products are just a few examples of eco-friendly alternatives that you can use in place of everyday products. If you haven’t started saving our planet, now would be a good time to start!
No More Business as Usual: Green Deal Needed in Europe’s Recovery
Chief executive officers (CEOs) and senior representatives of around 30 European companies expressed today their support for the European Green Deal as a growth strategy for Europe with a joint statement. The COVID-19 recovery is the opportunity to reset Europe’s economy with a new growth model on the path to net-zero emissions, based on circularity, renewable energy and low-carbon industries.
The CEOs said they firmly believe the way out of the current crisis cannot be more of the same. They commit to reducing their carbon footprint and to embrace new production and work models to play their part in decarbonizing Europe’s economy and achieving climate-neutrality by 2050.
“The COVID-19 pandemic requires a massive and coordinated economic stimulus to both mitigate the economic repercussions of the pandemic and, above all, to accelerate the necessary transition to a low carbon economy. We have to take more and faster action with more emphasis on sustainability and circularity. The European Green Deal presents an opportunity to do just this. It requires a strong partnership between business, politics and society. Together we can make Europe the greenest, most innovative and inclusive region in the world, where the Green Deal should provide jobs and economic prosperity at the same time. The action plan announced today by the WEF CEO Action Group for the European Green Deal is an important step with concrete actions to support this agenda.” commented the CEO Action Group Co-Chairs, Axa’s CEO Thomas Buberl and Feike Sybesma, Royal DSM’s Honorary Chairman.
“The EU is putting in place the largest and greenest stimulus plan ever. It is the right time for businesses to show how they can effectively contribute to achieving the EU’s climate targets. As a next step, this group is working on lighthouse projects, which demonstrate how to step up action in areas such as sustainable transport and mobility, food and agriculture and renewable energy markets,” Børge Brende, President of the World Economic Forum, added.
The EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in her State of the European Union speech today, is expected to reassert the Green Deal as a central element of Europe’s growth strategy and the region’s recovery efforts. Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s Executive Vice-President in charge of the European Green Deal, welcomed the CEO statement: “The Green Deal is a once-in-a-generation effort to transform our economy. It is crucial to have European businesses on board, as we’ll need every company to contribute to climate neutrality and help deliver on the Green Deal. I very much support the efforts of the CEO Action Group to implement the European climate agenda.”
CEOs and senior representatives supporting the statement are:
- Michael Altendorf, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Adtelligence GmbH, Germany
- Marco Alverà, Chief Executive Officer, Snam S.p.A., Italy
- Claudia Azevedo, Chief Executive Officer, SONAE SGPS SA, Portugal
- Kai Beckmann, Chief Executive Officer, Performance Materials, Member of the Executive Board, Merck, Germany
- Dick Benschop, President and Chief Executive Officer, Royal Schiphol Group, Netherlands
- Jesper Brodin, Chief Executive Officer, Ingka Group (IKEA), Netherlands
- Thomas Buberl, Chief Executive Officer, AXA SA, France*
- Levent Cakiroglu, Chief Executive Officer, Koç Holding AS, Turkey
- Bertrand Camus, Chief Executive Officer, SUEZ, France
- Liam Condon, President, Bayer Crop Science, Bayer AG, Germany
- Claudio Descalzi, Chief Executive Officer, Eni SpA, Italy
- Hanneke Faber, President, Foods and Refreshment Division, Unilever, Netherlands
- Camilla Hagen Sørli, Member of the Board, Canica AS, Norway
- André Hoffmann, Vice-Chairman, F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd, Switzerland
- John Holland-Kaye, Chief Executive Officer, Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited, United Kingdom
- Svein Tore Holsether, President and Chief Executive Officer, Yara International ASA, Norway
- Paul Hudson, Chief Executive Officer, Sanofi, France
- Nuno Matos, Chief Executive Europe, HSBC Holdings Plc, United Kingdom
- Gerald Podobnik, CFO Corporate Bank, Deutsche Bank AG, Germany
- Jonas Prising, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, ManpowerGroup, USA
- Nicolas Namias, Chief Executive Officer, Natixis, France
- Yves Robert-Charrue, Member of the Executive Board and Head of Switzerland, Europe, Middle East & Africa, Bank Julius Baer & Co. Ltd, Switzerland
- Michael Schernthaner, Chief Executive Officer, Schur Flexibles Group, Austria
- Veronica Scotti, Chairperson, Public Sector Solutions, Swiss Re Management Ltd, Switzerland
- Marco Settembri, Executive Vice-President and Chief Executive Officer, Europe, Middle East and North Africa, Nestlé, Switzerland
- Feike Sybesma, Honorary Chairman, Royal DSM NV, Netherlands*
- Jean-Pascal Tricoire, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Schneider Electric, France
- Loic Tassel, President, Europe, Procter & Gamble, Switzerland
- Bernhardt von Spreckelsen, Fashion Photographer & Developing Hyper Luxury, Brand Owner, Bernhardt von Spreckelsen, United Kingdom
The CEO Action Group for the European Green Deal, launched in autumn 2019 in cooperation with the World Economic Forum and the European Commission, seeks to mobilize business to step up commitments towards achieving the Green Deal and the EU greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2030 in order to drive a clean and inclusive economic recovery.
*Co-chairs of the CEO Action Group for the European Green Deal
Indigenous People in World Affairs
In late May, the world’s biggest iron ore miner Rio Tinto legally destroyed two historically significant sacred caves in a Western Australian state, against the wishes of the traditional Aboriginal owners, which sat atop a high-grade ore body it planned to mine.
The destruction distressed the local Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP) and fuelled a wider public outcry that led to an inquiry into how the blast was legally sanctioned.
The destruction of the sites, which showed evidence of 46,000 years of continual habitation, occurred just as the Black Lives Matter protests trained a global spotlight on racial injustice.
The inquiry is looking at how a culturally significant site came to be destroyed, the processes that failed to protect it, the impacts on traditional owners, and the legislative changes required to prevent such incidents from recurring.
Rio is conducting its own independent board review into the incident, due to be completed in October, and has pledged to make the findings public.
Aboriginal cultural heritage is a fundamental part of Aboriginal community life and cultural identity. It has global significance and forms an important component of the heritage of all Australians.
But the destruction of this culturally significant Aboriginal site is not an isolated incident. Rio Tinto was acting within the law.
In 2013, Rio Tinto was given ministerial consent to damage the Juukan Gorge caves. One year later, an archaeological dig unearthed incredible artefacts, such as a 4,000-year-old plait of human hair, and evidence that the site was much older than originally thought.
But state laws let Rio Tinto charge ahead nevertheless. This failure to put timely and adequate regulatory safeguards in place reveals a disregard and disrespect for sacred Aboriginal sites.
Another example is the world’s leading steel and mining company ArcelorMittal.
ArcelorMittal needs to move beyond good intentions on environmental and social improvements and turn words into deeds. Despite its rhetoric on social responsibility, the company continues to destroy the environment, risk people’s lives and displace local communities, according to a new report launched in 2019 by the Global Action on ArcelorMittal coalition to coincide with the company’s annual shareholder meeting in Luxembourg.
Comprising case studies from seven countries ranging from the Czech Republic to India and South Africa, the report also reveals new problems emerging around ArcelorMittal’s iron ore-mining operations in Nimba County, Liberia, including unclear resettlement plans for local people, a lack of permanent employment from the mine, threats to the Mount Nimba Nature Reserve, and a questionable donation of 100 pickup trucks.
The action of another manufacturer also raises controversy. Anglo American is a global mining company with a portfolio that spans diamonds, platinum, copper, iron ore and more. The emissions from a new Anglo American underground mine project in Chile could be catastrophic for the nation, ecologists reveal. The multinational company has so far avoided scrutiny of the project by hollowing out regional environmental organisations and sharing erroneous information with the scientific community. Anglo American, a London Stock Exchange listed company, has tunnelled under a Chilean glacier, with a plan to excavate copper and approximately 166 million tonnes of raw material from beneath the Yerba Loca nature sanctuary. This is equivalent to the volume of 127 Costanera Centre towers—South America’s tallest building, which sits at 300 metres and is located in Santiago. It then plans to backfill the entire mine with approximately 114.9 million tonnes of concrete.
The carbon footprint of the 3.4 million tonnes of cement required will be equivalent to 3.2 percent of the South American nation’s 2016 carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, or the collective carbon dioxide emissions of 20 of the world’s least-polluting countries. The number rises to 9.7 percent if Anglo American’s plan to extend the life of the mine from 2036 to 2065 is agreed.
We have more good examples.
The third largest steelmaker in the world is Nippon Steel. Each year beginning from 2015, the company has conducted a forest environment preservation activity—Greenship Action. In order to protect the valuable nature in the Tokyo metro area, with the cooperation of NPOs and members of the local forestry industry, Nippon Steel have been performing thinning work and creating access roads in the mountain forests of Ome City in Tokyo. Although cutting down trees may seem like environmental destruction, if the forest is left on its own, the trees will grow increasingly dense, resulting in a dark and unhealthy forest due to the lack of sunlight penetration. By identifying necessary and unnecessary trees, and removing the unnecessary ones, a suitable amount of sunlight can enter, restoring an environment that allows a diverse range of woodland life to coexist. This activity is a valuable opportunity for the participants to personally experience and understand the importance of contributing to society.
The Russian company Nornickel is a global leader in the production of the mineral nickel. Murmansk Oblast and the Taymyr Peninsula have been the homeland for indigenous peoples of the Arctic for generations and are the principal sites for the company’s activities. The Sámi, Nentsy, Nganasan, Entsy, Dolgan, and Evenki communities have preserved the traditional life, culture, and economy of Northern peoples, including reindeer herding, hunting, fishing, and gathering. Healthy and productive ecosystems, both on land and water, are the basis of indigenous people’s culture and identity, supported by the company.
In particular, the company allocates funds for the construction and repair of housing for indigenous peoples, the improvement of small and remote settlements in Taimyr, and the provision of food for the children of reindeer herders. Norilsk Nickel also renders assistance to the indigenous population with air transportation of goods to remote villages, supplies of building materials and fuel.
This article takes a critical look at how large-scale mining works in the emerging global economy. The strategies adopted by governments around the world in recent years to encourage foreign investment in exploration and production of minerals raise questions about how multinational mining companies are approaching environmental and related challenges. And the role of ecology in the policy of companies should only grow.
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