When I was a child growing up in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro my parents tended our farm without access to synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and antibiotics. Our crops did occasionally fail and our cattle did sometimes succumb to illness, but the climate was more predictable then, droughts were scarcer and invasive species fewer. We did have to walk further to fetch water, but it was clean, and we lived for the most part without significant risk of exposure to hazardous substances. Chemicals at that time played a much smaller role in lives, that were, in many respects, harder than they are today. But at the same time the challenges then - while often great - were less complex than those we face today.
Chemicals now constitute the building blocks of modern life. They make up our medicines and sanitary products, preserve our food and - through the batteries and other components of our tablets and phones - make modern communications possible. They also enable us to use solar panels and electric cars, as well as other technologies necessary to mitigate the impacts of climate change and to hasten our shift to a green economy. In other words, chemicals are a part of our future. But will that future be clean and green, or toxic and hazardous? The choice is ours, but we must act fast. Up to 13 million people are dying every year from pollution and environmental degradation, including around 190,000 from unintentional poisoning.
Without ensuring the environmentally sound management of hazardous substances and the proper regulation and phase-out of especially hazardous substances we will continue to see more lives lost to poisoning, contamination and pollution. We’ve all seen the data: pollution isn’t just a developing country problem. Parisians, Londoners (not to mention a significant number of Poles and Montenegrins) are also battling the fumes. At the same time, unscrupulous corporations and crime syndicates continue to transport highly toxic waste from Europe to the shores of many of the world’s poorest nations. Some of this forms part of the 36 million tonnes of e-waste that is processed informally, threatening the health of hundreds of thousands of women and children, and causing long-term environmental damage through heavy metals pollution.
The global regulatory response to chemicals and waste is just too slow to keep pace with the mounting problem. The Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions which help control international flows and disposal of hazardous wastes, and the control of the production and use of persistent organic pollutants currently regulate around100 chemicals. That still leaves around 140,000 chemicals in circulation on today’s international markets, feeding 10 million tonnes of solid urban waste each year. Most of these chemicals have not been thoroughly evaluated for their environmental and health impacts.
So why, when the threat posed by hazardous substances is so clear, is effective international governance of chemicals and waste so difficult to achieve? Part of the answer lies in our attitude to risk. We tend to wait for a substance to prove itself harmful to human health and the environment before we act. Related to this is the role of the private sector. They not only have superior knowledge of most chemicals, but they also hold the purse strings. No effective regulatory framework can be designed without their buy-in and investment in testing and evaluation. And then there is China. By 2030, China will have 44% of the global Euro 6.3 trillion share of the chemicals market. That means that failure to properly engage with China on chemicals governance will render any future chemicals regime meaningless.
The good news is that some attempts to construct a more comprehensive regime on chemicals and waste is already under way. The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) is a unique voluntary platform where governments, the private sector and civil society get to discuss chemicals and waste management. One of the objectives of SAICM going forward is to focus on the design of a flexible governance structure post-2020 to better address a much wider range of chemicals.
2017 is an important year for chemicals and waste. This week around 180 countries are convening in Geneva for the Conferences of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions to deliberate on how to better address, among other things, the potentially harmful environmental and health impacts of chemicals and waste. They will be joined by industry leaders, including Dow Chemical, Plastics Europe, and Dell. In September, the Minamata Convention on Mercury will hold its first major meeting of member states, and in December, UN Environment will host its third Environment Assembly, also known as the Pollution Summit. Here countries of the world will be called upon to commit honestly and steadfastly to reducing pollution through practical measures, including policies, laws and regulations. We hope that call is heard and is acted upon because we can’t live without chemicals, but we can’t keep losing lives to the deadly pollution that their mismanagement is causing. We must take chemicals seriously, our lives depend on it.