Collecting PCB from transformers for proper disposal
Photo courtesy of Anil Sookdeo

Since it was signed 20 years ago, the Stockholm Convention has helped countries throughout the world to carefully manage the use, storage, distribution, and disposal of a particularly dangerous group of hazardous chemicals, the persistent organic pollutants or POPs. 

Living in the early 21st century, we inhabit a world where these chemicals are everywhere, including in the tissues of every human being on Earth. POPs also travel without a passport. Because they pose a global threat, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) has been entrusted to help countries work to rid the world of POPs.

Entering this defining decade for international environmental governance, it is essential that we keep these dangerous pollutants at the center of our focus.

This is not only because of the multiple interactions between POPs, climate change, ocean pollution, and biodiversity loss. But also, because the budgets of developing countries will be under significant strain following the COVID-19 crisis, with limited means to deal with these important challenges. If we maintain our focus, it will be easier to meet our shared goals on ridding the world of the POPs that pollute our oceans and contribute to biodiversity loss, in particular under climate change conditions.

The good news is we have made significant progress over the past decade, with much momentum to build on.

Since 2009, 18 chemicals have been newly listed in Annexes A, B, and C to the Stockholm Convention, some of which have numerous related compounds. This is an excellent development that must now be matched by commensurate efforts by governments to restrict and eliminate these chemicals. Many government representatives, experts, NGO, and private sector representatives are already working together to address these challenges and to ‘move the needle’ towards a more healthy and cleaner planet for us all.

The Global Environment Facility is the principal entity entrusted, on an interim basis, with the operation of the Stockholm Convention financial mechanism, supporting implementation of many activities worldwide. For many developing countries and countries with economies in transition, support from the GEF will be key to further addressing implementation challenges.

As we look ahead to the next meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP-10) of the Stockholm Convention and the eighth replenishment of the GEF trust fund (GEF-8), in this 20th anniversary year of the Stockholm Convention, let us also prepare for the milestones ahead, as much more remains to be done.

We now have an opportunity to jointly capitalize on the successes of the Convention to date and ensure sustainable financing to continue to support implementation efforts for years to come. This includes efforts to meet the Stockholm Conventions Parties’ target of 2025 concerning the use of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) in equipment, the expiration of specific exemptions for brominated diphenyl ethers and certain uses of decabromodiphenyl ether (decaBDE) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and the restriction of the use of fire-fighting foam that may contain perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

Plenary session of the 2019 Conferences of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions
Plenary session of the 2019 Conferences of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions. Photo credit: BRS MEAS/Flickr

We also know that significant quantities of legacy POPs, such as PCB, are yet to be eliminated. At the same time, Parties to the Stockholm Convention continue to submit their updated national implementation plans, requiring increased focus and specific guidance on the newly listed POPs. Legacy and new POPs each require fundamentally different intervention strategies. While legacy POP projects focus predominantly on waste management and disposal operations, many of the newly listed pollutants are still traded and used. It is therefore important to strike a balance between legacy and new POPs. Furthermore, restricting and eliminating the newly listed POPs will require new strategies and more prominent involvement of the private sector. A focus on early stage interventions and innovations will also go a long way in addressing the long-term global impacts of hazardous chemicals wastes in the environment. This creates opportunities to help governments take meaningful action in tandem with other stakeholders to address the tough challenges ahead.

For example, legislation and policies specifically designed to implement obligations regarding listed POPs is lacking in many developing countries. Many countries updated their national implementation plans to tackle the issues relevant to the newly listed POPs. However, due to the dynamic character of the Stockholm Convention, this is an ongoing task, with the goalposts moving every time additional chemicals are listed. Furthermore, stockpiles and waste from legacy pesticide POPs remain highly challenging and continue to contribute to secondary releases of these pollutants.

On dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), the Stockholm Convention’s DDT Expert Group is proposing additional steps towards the focused phasing out of DDT and to initiate an intersessional process of consultation on a possible phase-out plan with those Parties that are in the DDT Register. The phasing-in of Best Available Technologies and Best Environmental Practices (BAT & BEP) to minimize or ultimately eliminate releases of unintentionally produced POPs must also continue.

Overall, the Stockholm Convention’s Global Monitoring Plan continues to provide helpful intelligence and evidence of the reduction of POPs worldwide. It is vital that this plan remains sustainable, continues to expand with monitoring of the newly listed chemicals, and provides reliable information on changes of POPs concentrations in humans and the environment over time. Identifying strategies and synergies to address plastic waste and microplastics, especially those containing chemicals additives with POPs properties will set the scene to ensure efforts to reduce plastic marine pollution are also tackled further up the life cycle of plastics production and alternatives identified.

The current pace of disposal work suggests that efforts need to significantly step up with regard to PCBs in coming years. Estimates of the PCB quantities Parties are currently confronted with range from 300,000 to 700,000 metric tons. Achieving the ambitious deadlines in the Stockholm Convention for elimination will require a concerted and harmonized approach in order to secure the additional funding needs and to scale up the action. Also, national inventories and action plans will need to be updated more regularly with regard to PCB, and disposal work needs to be scaled up significantly in the years to come.

The challenges of meeting the resource needs to address chemical and waste challenges at the global level remain. While such needs are very much government donor-driven, it is vital to explore mechanisms whereby the chemical industry and other industries can contribute towards the sound management of chemicals and waste, including investing in research and development towards greener chemicals and designing products that can be feasibly recycled or recovered. The high environmental cost of obtaining primary materials provides an important justification for secondary materials use and the reduction of waste.

We know that the adverse impact of hazardous chemicals and waste on human health and the environment can be substantially reduced by implementing existing international treaties, including the Stockholm Convention. Indeed, through multilateralism in general, the global community is making great strides working towards addressing sustainable development in support of a safer planet. It is now broadly recognized that pollution, and specifically the unsound management of chemicals and waste, is a key driver for long-lasting environmental degradation.

Addressing chemicals and waste challenges in a more holistic and interconnected manner across all areas of environmental action will help us to mitigate the impact of pollution on climate change, to reduce the loss of biodiversity, and help us to curb land degradation. The GEF plays an important role in bringing governments, communities, and the private sector together to tackle these challenges in an integrated way, and we look forward to the next phases of this fruitful and vital cooperation.

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