Emissions and releases of mercury can have devastating effects on the environment and human health. Like other heavy metals, mercury is an element and thus persists in the environment forever. It can be transported great distances from its original emission source and is deposited in the air, water, sediments, soil, and biota in various forms, contaminating the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. The global community is taking action through The Minamata Convention on Mercury.
Mercury is usually extracted from the mineral cinnabar. It is the only metal that exists as a liquid at room temperature and easily evaporates into the air. Because of its unique characteristics, mercury is widely used in thermometers, barometers, fluorescent lights, and electric switches, and is also used to extract gold and as amalgams for filling teeth.
Mercury is a neurotoxin; exposure to elemental mercury and methyl mercury, mercury in food, and mercury vapors may pose significant health issues such as kidney, heart, and respiratory problems, tremors, headaches, and weakened vision, hearing, and memory.
Every year, burning coal, manufacturing cement, and other industrial processes release some 2,000 tons of mercury into the atmosphere. But most mercury emissions into air come from artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM).
What We Do
The GEF officially recognized the need for action on mercury in 1995. In 2013, the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee designated the GEF as an entity comprising the financial mechanism of The Minamata Convention on Mercury. As of November 1, 2019, 128 countries and the European Union have signed the Convention, including 50 developing countries and Countries with Economies in Transition (CEITs); the Convention now has 114 Parties. The Minamata Convention entered into force on 16 August 2017.
The GEF helps countries to:
- Assess use and production of mercury, and products with mercury, within the country
- Determine sources of mercury emissions and releases, and assess contaminated sites
- Determine the extent of mercury use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) and implement mercury-free technologies and techniques
- Identify what’s needed for a national mercury program
- Identify what’s needed to implement the convention at the national level.
The GEF also invests in actions to reduce the use of mercury in products and processes; reduce emissions and releases of mercury from industrial processes; move toward the sound management of mercury; and address the use of mercury in ASGM.
In GEF-6 (2014-2018), the GEF invested $141 million in programming that delivered the following:
- Projects that will reduce over 600 metric tons of mercury per year from key sectors including ASGM and the production of vinyl chloride monomer;
- Support to 110 countries to conduct Minamata Initial Assessments and to 32 countries to conduct ASGM National Action Plans.
In GEF-7 (2018-2022), funding for mercury programs has increased to $206 million that will be used to phase out, reduce, and where possible eliminate mercury in priority sectors of the Minamata Convention. Funding for mercury is included in the four GEF-7 chemicals and waste programming lines and includes support for enabling activities, reduction of mercury emissions and releases from sectors specified by the Minamata Convention, as well as phase out and elimination of mercury in products and processes that are included in the Minamata Convention. As of June 30, 2019, the projects approved during the GEF-7 period that support Minamata Convention implementation are estimated to reduce 1,163 metric tons of mercury.
In addition, the GEF-7 Impact Programs on Food, Land Use and Restoration; Sustainable Cities; and Sustainable Forest Management are expected to deliver global environmental benefits by reducing the harmful effects of chemicals and waste, including mercury.
The GEF’s support for the Minamata Convention is part of its broad effort to meet the challenge of toxic chemical pollution. Many of the products we use today involve long and complex global supply chains that extend from material extraction to disposal. To achieve transformational change, GEF projects seek closer integration with such global supply chains. These efforts help ensure that products crossing national borders are free of global priority substances that otherwise enter into markets and recycling chains. Increasingly, this process engages the private sector. The GEF can help to convene the relevant stakeholders and function as an honest broker in facilitating the work needed to help transform the chemicals industry and related products and materials streams.
The GEF is a catalyst for both governments and the private sector to help eliminate or reduce harmful chemicals and waste. GEF’s programming strategy for chemicals and waste builds on its past work in policy and priority setting, piloting technologies and techniques to build best practices, and progressively working with the private sector to help foster sound management of chemicals and waste.