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The international agreement on mercury

The Minamata Convention

Background information

In January 2013, negotiations on the United Nations Convention on Mercury – known as the Minamata Convention – were concluded. The Federal Republic of Germany strongly supported the Convention from the start of negotiations. On 10 October 2013, over 90 countries, including Germany, and the European Union signed the Convention in Minamata, Japan. The Convention is the first new multilateral environmental agreement to have been adopted in several years.

Minamata was the scene of a major mercury disaster when in the mid-1950s several thousand people suffered from severe health problems due to year-long discharges of wastewater containing mercury into the city’s bay by the Japanese chemicals company Chisso. Many died due to heavy metal poisoning. What came to be called Minamata disease causes amongst other things paralysis, deformities and permanent damage to organs, nerves and the immune system. The name Minamata Convention commemorates the victims of this contamination and acts as a warning of the consequences of mercury emissions and irresponsible handling of this heavy metal.

What are the key elements of the Convention?

The aim of the Minamata Convention is to curb mercury emissions worldwide. It thus serves to protect human health and the environment not only where mercury emissions are generated but also where they are transported to.

Parties to the Convention are required to ensure substantial reductions in the use of mercury in industrial production. From 2020 onwards, the production and sale of mercury-added products, such as certain lamps or thermometers, is prohibited. Moreover, mercury waste may only be stored and disposed of in accordance with strict requirements.

With the Convention in force, parties may no longer open up new mercury mines. They must also take measures to protect workers in small-scale gold mining. New coal-fired power plants are subject to the principle of using the best available technologies to provide protection against mercury emissions. The implementation of the Convention is to be monitored by a committee to be set up under the Convention.

Which problems will the Convention tackle?

Mercury is a highly toxic heavy metal that is fatal in high doses. The health risk is greatest if mercury vapours are inhaled or mercury gets into contact with the skin. In the environment, mercury frequently disperses over large areas through water and air and is absorbed by animals and plants.

More than 20 per cent of global emissions are generated as a by-product of the combustion of coal for power generation (China, for example, is one of the biggest emitters). These emissions are to be reduced in the long term by developing alternative technologies and purification processes and by ensuring a corresponding technology transfer to support developing countries and newly industrialising countries.

Small-scale gold mining poses another key problem: Many artisanal miners use mercury in the mining process, which then evaporates, endangering the health of workers and the environment. The ban on new mercury mines and the introduction of alternative technologies that are better both for human health and the environment are intended to encourage small-scale miners to stop using mercury. The emission reductions and the ban on mercury-added products are intended to minimise the general risk of poisoning.

What impact will the Convention have on Germany?

Strict rules are already in place in the European Union to curb the majority of mercury emissions. The Convention is being implemented on EU level by Regulation (EU) 2017/852 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 May 2017 on mercury, and repealing Regulation (EC) Number 1102/2008. Therefore, the Convention will only lead to the introduction of a few additional measures in Germany. But German consumers will also profit from a worldwide reduction in emission levels, as, for example, fish will contain lower mercury levels. 

What has happened since the Convention was opened for signature?

The Convention entered into force on 16 August 2017 following its ratification by 50 countries. To date, 128 countries have signed the Convention and 83 have ratified it. Germany ratified the Convention on 15 September 2017. The Convention will enter into force in Germany 90 days after ratification, for example on 14 December 2017. The corresponding act was published in the Federal Law Gazette II on 19 June 2017 and entered into force on 20 June 2017. The first meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP1) took place in Geneva (Switzerland) from 24 to 29 September 2017. 

First Conference of the Parties (COP1)

More than 1200 representatives of governments, non-governmental and intergovernmental organisations participated in COP1 of the Minamata Convention under the heading “Make Mercury History”. Negotiations focussed on topics such as the location and organisational structure of the permanent secretariat, budget, reporting and financing mechanism. Furthermore, the aim was to adopt guidelines for the practical implementation of the Convention’s provisions. As part of COP 1, participants of the High Level Segment – two heads of state and government and 80 ministers – came together for ministerial roundtables to discuss a wide range of mercury specific issues.

While progress was made with regard to technical issues (for example reporting, monitoring the effectiveness of the Convention, management of existing mercury pollutions), no agreement was reached on the location of the permanent secretariat. Various topics were postponed to COP2 which is expected to take place in Geneva from 19 to 23 November 2018.