24 May 2001 17:35 [Source: ICIS news]
The signing by 90 countries of the Unep (United Nations Environmental Programme) Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) is good news for the chemical industry. It shows that a workable and balanced regime for the control of toxic chemicals based on sound science can be agreed internationally despite all the years of argument and debate.
This is a robust convention which gives a much greater chance for the adoption of legally binding control measures in the large number of countries that are expected to ratify it soon. Fifty countries have to ratify the treaty before it comes into force. A greater opportunity for compliance at the national level holds out the hope for much more widespread environmental improvement.
The US has said that it will ‘move swiftly’ to submit the treaty for US Senate approval. The European Union (EU) agreed to sign the treaty ahead of its formal presentation in Stockholm on 21-23 May.
A broad consensus has been achieved on plans to control the release and phase-out of the 12 POPs identified by the Convention, including eight pesticides, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), hexachlorobenzene, certain dioxins and furans. Most of these chemicals are already strictly controlled in the developed world, if not banned outright.
However, the Convention will help bring about much more widespread control of POPs emissions and waste. It requires the phase-out or restriction of use of the listed products and the minimisation or elimination of the release of the POPs listed as by-products. A vitally important aspect to the convention is the agreement that has been reached concerning the control of more POPs and the destruction of POPs waste.
The POPs Convention sets the scene for future chemicals management in a controlled and scientific way. The chemical industry has for years supported a balanced and workable regime for POPs control and it looks as though this has been achieved.
The ICCA (International Council Of chemical Associations), the trade body that increasingly is coming to represent the industry on a global basis, sees the Convention as being fully consistent with the codes of practice for producers and others set out in Responsible Care. This is an important tool to support the regular control of the risks associated with POPs and POPs emissions, it believes.
In the long-term a balanced approach to chemicals risk management will work in the interests of the industry, giving producers time to phase out products and find alternatives. Certainly, the chemicals identified in the POPs Convention have for a long time been widely accepted as hazardous and in need of control. The Convention clearly provides a workable mechanism for their control on a much wider basis than currently exits.
The ICCA says it is particularly pleased with the scientific criteria for adding further POPs to the convention as well as the reference made to the use of best available technologies, rather than more proscribed measures, for the destruction of POP wastes.
The Convention has apparently not developed further the EU's concept of the ‘precautionary principle’ but kept precautionary principle ideas within strict limits. The chief US negotiator to the Convention, Brooks Yeager, said in January this year that the US had negotiated very carefully to meet EU concerns but not the letter of EU demands. "There is no reference to the precautionary principal in the text of the treaty," he said at the time, adding that a balanced set of statements express the precautionary nature of the treaty but they are also well integrated into its scientific structure.
Widespread acceptance of this approach to the precautionary principle is the most important aspect of the treaty for the industry. Including reference to the precautionary principle in the operational sections of the Convention could have spelled disaster and certainly prevented some nations from signing let alone ratifying the document.
The ICCA has maintained throughout that it is important that the precautionary principle be defined as it is in Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration (the declaration made following the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992). This reads: "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."
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