Negotiating the future of international chemicals governance beyond 2020

A plant with five dyeing machines will need about 250kg of dye, along with other additives. Aproximately 2500kg of dyestuff paste circulates the plant every day. This plant is located within the Binhai Industrial Zone.

250 delegates are discussing the future United Nations framework to deal with hazardous chemicals and waste in Brasilia. Nils Simon (adelphi) spoke to stakeholders about why we need an enhanced framework and how it should look like.

The consumption of chemicals by all industries and modern society’s reliance on chemicals for virtually all manufacturing processes make chemicals production a major and one of the most globalised sectors of the world economy. But the acknowledgement of the essential economic role of chemicals and their contribution to improved living standards needs to be balanced with recognition of potential costs.

The coming years will be a decisive phase for international chemicals and waste governance: In 2006, the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) has been established at the United Nations as a global policy framework to foster sustainable chemicals management. The mandate of SAICM is linked to the goal that by 2020, "chemicals are used and produced in ways that lead to the minimisation of significant adverse effects on human health and the environment”. For the time beyond 2020, the international community and other stakeholders are currently working on a renewed mandate and developing suitable instruments to further advance the sound management of chemicals and waste (SMCW). A first meeting is held in Brasilia from 7 to 9 February 2017.

Interview with Nils Simon

Nils Simon and his team at adelphi have been accompanying the SAICM reform process since the beginning. In order to provide information for the debate in Brasilia, he had gathered insights from 38 experts on chemicals involved in SAICM. He had talked to 13 governmental representatives from both developed and developing countries, to ten representatives from intergovernmental organisations, to nine from civil society, and three each from academia and businesses.

What did the interviewees differ on most?

Nils Simon: How exactly the reform beyond 2020 should look like was sometimes quite contested. For example, developing countries and civil society argued for a much stronger and better equipped financial mechanism for SAICM, something developed countries are reluctant to agree to. Another idea that was often mentioned was a better science-policy interface.

This could take the form of a panel of scientists collecting information on hazardous substances and providing state-of-the-art reports to decision-makers. However, how it should be designed and what issues the panel should look at was quite open. Long story short, there is widespread agreement on the really broad issues at hand, but a lot to discuss about the details.

So, what other commonalities do you see?

Nils Simon: All interviewees wanted to keep the multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral setup of SAICM. Most of them prefer the voluntary character, and they thought that SAICM did enable progress on global chemical safety in the past. But they want to see it enhanced and improved beyond 2020.

Many made the point that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could not be achieved without making full use of the benefits modern chemicals provide, while at the same time ensuring they are used safely. Others saw it as indeed contributing to global chemical safety. They noted that it did so only slowly and in a surprisingly piecemeal approach.

What do you expect from the meeting in Brazil?

Nils Simon: I expect delegates to agree on a clear roadmap for the remaining deliberation process. Developing countries and civil society already made sure financing will be highlighted. We will likely see early general convergence on some areas like the need to enhance the science-policy interface on hazardous substances. Yet, I assume that at this stage, we will mostly see delegates making sure all issues dear to them are put on the agenda – this is something that tends to happen at the beginning of international negotiations. SAICM with its broad scope is especially prone to that.

It is only after the meeting that the two co-chairs from Canada and Brazil, who are facilitating the negotiations, will boil the discussions down to a few pages. That co-chairs’ summary will provide the basis for the further process and ultimately feed into a resolution to be agreed upon at the fifth International Conference on Chemicals Management in 2020. So there really is a lot to discuss before we will see the final outcome. 

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