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Governments agree on global treaty to cut mercury emissions

World Coal,

Over 140 UN member states have agreed to a global treaty to reduce mercury emissions. The treaty, known as the Minamata Convention after a Japanese town that experienced on the world’s worst cases of mercury poisoning, will increase controls on products containing mercury, such as batteries, lamps and cosmetics; address the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining; and target emissions from industrial plants, including cement plants, waste incineration and coal-fired power plants.

Impact on coal-fired power industry

New coal-fired power plants will be required to apply best available techniques (BAT) to control or, where possible, to reduce mercury emissions. For existing power plants, countries will have the flexibility to choose their preferred approach from a list of measures suggested in the Convention. Commenting on the agreement, Milton Caitlin, CEO of the World Coal Association, congratulated the US on taking a “realistic approach” to the problem of mercury emissions from the coal-fired power plants: “The reference to BAT in the Convention means that each country’s socio-economic situation and access to relevant technologies will be taken into account.”

He continued: “This approach will ensure that countries are able to address the issue of mercury emissions from their coal-fired power plants via the application of technologies which are most appropriate in a given national context and for a given facility and without having to restrict the use of coal as an energy fuel or to compromise their economic development goals.”

Improve medical training

Negotiations on the treaty began at the UN’s Environment Programme (Unep) Governing Council session back in 2009, with the final talks taking place in Geneva. It will be signed in October at a meeting in Japan, and is expected to come into force in 3 – 5 years. Japan, Norway and Switzerland will provide funding to fast track the treaty. The Global Environment Facility is expected to offer support to developing countries.

Mercury and its compounds can cause a range of health problems, including kidney, digestive and neurological damage. The Minamata Convention also aims to improve medical training to help health professionals to identify and treat conditions caused by mercury.

Edited from various sources by Louise Fordham; additional material by Jonathan Rowland.

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