The Second Last Day: Is Agreement Possible? Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC (May 11, 2011)


Yesterday I gave an account of the intervention at the High Level Segment of the Irish Minister for the Environment Local Government and Community. Other interventions were also important. The Argentine minister spoke for the G-77/China. She stressed the importance of improving transport, especially in rural areas. She also called for the poverty eradication. She challenged transnational corporations (TNCs) to apply the same environmental and health standards which they use in ‘developed’ countries to their mines and businesses in ‘developing’ countries as well. She repeated a common call for an inventory of hazardous waste and the development of bioremediations technologies.  She called on ‘developed’ countries to give leadership in the implementation of the 10 Year Framework of Programmes (10YFP).

Work on the Preamble also continued on Wednesday. The delegates agreed to include paragraphs on implementing the measures and actions which are recommended at CSD 19.  The text called on the delegates to ensure that these recommendations must be consistent with other international obligations, especially, the rules of the World Trade Organisation. They reaffirmed the call for a successful completion of the Doha Round of the WTO. I have heard that mantra so often in the past decade, and yet we are nowhere nearer completion of the Doha Round of the WTO.

The Production, Use and Final Destination of Chemicals in our Modern World

During the lunch break I attended a side-event called Body Burden where a number of people, including a woman golfer from Sweden were tested by experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) for persistent and hazardous chemicals that are in their system. It appears the chemicals which are used in the kitchen, the garden or on golf courses can have detrimental effect on human and environmental health. In the pamphlet, World Ecology Report: Critical Issues in Health and Environment, the Director of Research at the Parkinson’s Disease Society (PDS), reported that there was “growing evidence” linking pesticides with Parkinson’s. A study in 2009 found that people who have Parkinson’s disease have higher levels of Lindane in their system than others. Lindane is a common ingredient in many pesticides The Lindane researchers said that the chemical could act as a “trigger” with people who are already prone to developing the disease.  This is why in 2009, Lindane was added to the list of persistent chemicals which are banned under the Stockholm Convention.

Waste Management and Chemicals

A Ministerial Roundtable on Waste and the Management of Chemicals began at 3pm. Before the ministers made gave their submissions, a number of experts in the field, spoke.  The first was Jim Willis who is currently, the Director of US EPA’s Chemical Control Division in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. Mr. Willis has been with the Agency for more than 20 years in various senior management positions. He also worked with the United Nations for a number of years. He said that his office reviews 1,500 new chemicals each year.

He began by saying that chemicals are a part of modern living, they contribute to human well-being and create jobs and economic growth. He claimed that most chemical appear to be benign, but there is a small number of chemicals which have caused health problems for humans and the environment.  Persistent bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) chemicals represent a group of substances that are not easily degraded, accumulate in organisms, and exhibit an acute or chronic toxicity. The effects of PBTs range from cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive dysfunction, behavioral abnormalities, birth defects, disturbance of the immune system, damage to the liver and nervous system.  Among these dangerous chemical are organochlorine such as DDT, which was the first that was used on a large scale in the US and Europe. In Ireland in the 1950s, it was common to spread it on bed sheets in order to kill bedbugs. It is extremely persistent in the environment and in people’s bodies. Although DDT is no longer used in most ‘developed’ countries, it is still used to kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes.  He also mentioned polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which were widely used in transformers and other electrical appliances. Due to it toxicity and persistence, PCBs were banned in the US in 1979 and by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001.

Willis spoke about the importance of Agenda 21, especially chapter 19 because it gave the green light for the establishment of important conventions which have dealt with chemicals. The Basel Convention, is an international treaty which is aimed at stopping the movement of hazardous waste across nation boundaries. It is specifically geared to prevent the transfer of waste from ‘developed’ to ‘developing’ countries.  This convention predates the Rio Earth Summit. It was opened for signatures in March 1989 and came into force in May 1992.

During the earlier side event, one of the speakers claimed that a significant proportion of the 5 billion tonnes of e-waste which is generated each year is illegally dumped in ‘developing’ countries.

He also mentioned the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants which was designed to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). It was signed in 2001, and came into effect in May 2004. He touched on the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Consent Procedures for Certain Hazardous Chemicals. It sets out to promote shared responsibility between those who manufacture chemicals and those who use them.  It calls on exporters to put proper labels on hazardous chemicals and to give adequate directions on how they might be used safely. This Convention was completed in May 2001 and came into force in May 2004.

Another very important international initiative in the sound management of chemicals is the Inter-Organisation Programme for Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC). It was established in 1995 to strengthen cooperation and increase coordination in the area of the safe use of chemicals. It is now attempting to increase awareness about the potential benefits and hazards of  nano technologies.  The goal of all these treaties, conventions and cooperative initiatives is to minimize and eliminate the negative consequences of chemicals while benefitting from their use.

The second speaker Prasad Modak, Executive President Environmental Management Centre, Mumbai Area, India, insisted that the sound management of chemicals and waste must address the complete life cycle of the material.  This must include the negative impact of the manufacturing process,  potential problems which might emerge during its use by the consumer and what happens when product is finally discarded.

It is all very well to have conventions in place, and even to have the obligations recognised in national legislation, but unless there an increase in the capacity of ‘developing’ countries to enforce the laws, little will happen on the ground and the poor, especially poor farmers and their families will suffer. The need for financial support to develop this capacity was central to the statement by Denis Kellman, the Minister of the Environment, Water Resources Management and Drainage of the Government of Barbados. He was speaking on behalf of the Member States of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). He drew attention to the difficulty ‘developing’ countries have in meeting the obligations of these conventions. “In this regard, we request that a comprehensive global financing strategy for chemicals be developed as a matter of priority to support implementation of these Chemicals Related Multilateral Environment Agreements (MEAs). The Private sector should be included in the architecture of such strategy.” This calls for more holistic waste policies, a clear regulatory framework and a commitment to transparency.

Is Zero Waste possible or is it Just a Slogan?

The concept of zero waste figured in some of the statements from the ministers, including Minister Phil Hogan. Zero waste must become the basic paradigm for the future at the local, national and international level. The paradigm shift means that levels of human well-being must now be achieved within the resource constraints of nature and its ability to absorb human-created waste. It means viewing waste primarily as a resource. It calls for the development of policies which promote waste prevention and, if that is not always possible, waste minimization. As I walk to the UN Building each morning, I see mounds of waste in black bags piled up on the foot paths waiting to be collected and either placed in landfill or incinerated. What zero waste strategies are being designed to deal with this waste of resources?   Here at the restaurants in the UN building, all the cutlery, plates, bottles, paper cups and plates are thrown into a bin after a single use.  When and how is this going to change? Without concrete action on the ground, aspirational texts will lead to cynicism.

Mr. Illes, State Secretary for the Environment of the Republic of Hungary spoke on behalf of the EU. According to him more has to be done to increase resource efficiency and reduce waste, notably by increasing recycling/reuse and improving the design of the products. He also focused on sustainable water management, aimed to protect surface and ground water from contamination and minimize the energy used to produce the raw material. A good example of minimizing waste was the introduction of a plastic bag legacy in Ireland over a decade ago.  According to Minister Hogan, this has led to a fall of nearly 95 percent on plastic litter.  I remember the controversy from the NGO side of the argument, as I was Chair of Greenpeace Ireland at the time. We were repeatedly told by the then Minister for the Environment that it couldn’t be done, because the Irish consumer liked to have plastic bags for each item, and the retailers saw the plastic bag as a way of cutting down on pilfering.

He also brought up the topic of mine closure.  In the view of the EU, governments must provide the legal and regulatory framework for mine closures, and most of all, have the institutional capacity to monitor and enforce their provisions. He also spoke of abandoned or ‘orphaned’ sites which often pose a huge danger to people, especially young people. In my years in the Philippines, I often saw children playing on or close to tailings. Mr. Illis said that these need to be addressed through a “broad sustainable framework to be developed and applied worldwide to the remediation of orphan and abandoned mine sites, in such a way that these sites do not affect public health, safety and the environment, and correct, as far as possible, social impacts.”

Decoupling: natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth

There was also a lot of talk about decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth. The figures are frightening. By 2050, humanity could devour an estimated 140 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year. This three times the current rate.

People in ‘developed’ countries consume an average of 16 tons of those four key resources per capita (ranging up to 40 or more tons per person in some ‘developed countries’). By comparison, the average person in India today consumes four tons per year.

With the growth of both population and prosperity, especially in developing countries, the prospect of much higher resource consumption levels is “far beyond what is likely sustainable” if realized at all given finite world resources, warns this report by UNEP’s International Resource Panel.[1]

Already the world is running out of cheap and high quality sources of some essential materials such as oil, copper and gold, the supplies of which, in turn, require ever-rising volumes of fossil fuels and freshwater to produce. Improving the rate of resource productivity (“doing more with less”) faster than the economic growth rate is the notion behind “decoupling,” the panel says. Others claim that it will need to be teased out more thoroughly, with time lines factored in, because, at the moment, it sounds like alchemy.

That goal demands an urgent rethink of the links between resource use and economic prosperity, buttressed by a massive investment in technological, financial and social innovation to, at least freeze the per capita consumption in wealthy countries and help ‘developing’ nations follow a more sustainable path.

In his statement Mr. Phil Hogan, Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government stated, “that Ireland had a well established National Waste Prevention Programme. …. In developing our new waste policy I will be working with all key stakeholders to examine the role of existing and new producer responsibility schemes to drive waste reduction. I believe that significant opportunities, both environmental and economic can flow from better design and the substitution of less hazardous materials in the production of industrial and consumer goods.”





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