Business innovation | Opinion

The pressing need for global chemicals governance

Image cropchemicalsdreamstimexs15036582 thumb 2x

Sound management essential

A collaborative approach to managing chemicals use can help broader business and development goals, argues Paul Hohnen

“The production and use of chemicals has grown exponentially from the 1970s to today. At the same time, the negative impacts of hazardous chemicals and waste on human health, the environment and economic and social life have multiplied as well, despite action taken to enhance chemicals safety.”

So begins a major report just published under the auspices of the Nordic Council of Ministers. The report – Chemicals and Waste Governance Beyond 2020: Exploring Pathways for a Coherent Global Regime – is welcome for several reasons.

Firstly, for drawing attention to the issue of current chemicals usage and management.

During the final quarter of the 20th century, concerns about chemicals safety saw the introduction of a range of international agreements and initiatives. While these remain in place, their political priority (not to mention funding) appears to have declined as concerns over climate change have forcefully moved to the fore.

Secondly, for reminding us that, far from being resolved, chemical safety issues remain a real and present issue for human and environmental wellbeing.

And, finally, for pointing out that an important piece of the international chemicals architecture – the so called Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM, hosted by UNEP) – needs a renewed mandate after 2020, raising the question of what, if anything, should replace it.

Beyond 2020?

Since the international negotiating process on the beyond 2020 framework is scheduled to begin shortly in Brazil, it is timely to explore options for the SAICM successor arrangements.

The context, briefly, is this.

Since 2006, SAICM’s mission has been to promote voluntary practical actions by the chemicals industry, national governments, international organisations (such as the World Health Organization) and civil society to deal with current and emerging challenges in relation to the production, use and disposal of chemicals.

Most people have never heard of SAICM. This is because it is a relatively low profile and small scale operation, working to build knowledge, capacity and common approaches. Being voluntary, it perhaps is not regarded as seriously as its more muscular cousins, the international chemicals conventions.

These – the Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm (and recently Minamata) conventions are legally binding (at least for those countries that have signed, ratified and implemented) – have done great work since the 1990s in identifying specific hazardous chemicals and practices (such as the waste trade) needing phase-out or much tougher control.

Even more stringent is the EU REACH chemicals legislation, which has seriously improved chemicals management both in the EU and beyond.

Robust solution required

While SAICM is, however, only a voluntary initiative, a case can be made for it – in a next phase – to assume an even more important role in the global chemicals management universe.

The argument goes as follows.

How we design, manufacture, use and dispose of chemicals – and the products that contain them – matters. Greatly.

When we get chemicals or their use wrong, ozone holes open up. Long-lived mutagenic, carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting substances build up in humans and animals everywhere. Not a day goes by without a report of deaths or injuries due to chemical accidents or some other adverse effect. The International Labor Organization (ILO) once estimated that workplace exposure to hazardous chemicals alone causes about 651,000 deaths a year.

When we get them right, however, we can improve everything from human health (eg water purification and pharmaceuticals) and to energy generation and storage (think solar panels and lithium batteries).

But with the number and volume of chemicals produced on the rise (from the estimated 140,000 or so substances now), the activities of this $4 trillion global industry need a closer and more consistent look. By everyone.

While not excluding the need for new regulatory approaches, the time has come to create a positive vision and framework for the future of chemistry in sustainable development.

And this is where SAICM enters the picture.

Unlike the chemicals conventions, which mainly target specific classes of chemicals, SAICM addresses both substances and related management practices – such as focusing on the phase-out of lead in paint. Or on the 800 or so known endocrine disruptors, or on chemicals in consumer products such as cadmium. On nanotechnology. And on the rising volume of hazardous substances in the lifecycle of our smart phones and computers.

Unlike the conventions, it seeks to use a collaborative approach to bring the best out of regulators, the private sector and civil society, including – importantly – organised labour.

Over the decade since its creation, SAICM has offered a glimpse of the future potential of this model of international action. Its original goal to minimize harm from hazardous chemicals by 2020 will obviously not be achieved, and so the big question now becomes what will happen after 2020. 

Three future options

To complement the Nordic Council report, which recommends that the current framework be revised and provides a range of possible measures to do so, three broad options are likely to be considered by negotiators over the coming three years.

The first of these might be called “SAICM Same”.

In terms of mandate, this would essentially be a continuation of the past arrangements, including on levels of (good) participation and (very modest) funding. The “pros” would include that it: could be the politically easiest outcome to achieve; continues a valued policy framework and conversation; and safeguards the vital capacity-building work in emerging economies, where some of the worst impacts of poor chemicals management are felt.

The “cons” would include rising frustrations about a mismatch of (high) ambitions and (limited) capacity and that it – as now – fails to address growing production of chemicals worldwide and the huge lack of transparency of what’s being used, in what products, and what their impacts are.

Another option is “SAICM Private”.

Industry-led, rather than being based on a UN framework, it might take the shape of a new high-level chemicals sector initiative to give more attention to why and how chemicals are used. It could include an upgrading of the Responsible Care framework, a commitment to green and sustainable chemistry, and the informal adoption of REACH-like product testing globally.

“Cons” would involve issues about transparency, accountability and cost, not to mention the potential loss of the multi-stakeholder approach and its benefits. “Pros” could include greater industry engagement and ownership, including along the entire value chain.

Finally, there is the “SAICM Plus” option.

This would see SAICM taken to scale: more participants and resources to tackle more collective problem solving. In the process, of course, this would involve building synergies with the conventions but reaching beyond the current vision towards a truly sustainable approach to chemicals management.

Increased initial financial outlays for governments and industry are among the more obvious “cons”. Better chemicals management, however, is estimated to have a number of co-benefits including reduced costs for human health and environmental clean-up.

Other “pros” would include that it could build on the existing multi-stakeholder framework and links to the conventions and key agencies, such as the WHO, UNEP, FAO and ILO; it could remain voluntary but with increased attention to practical management-based initiatives and on defining and rolling out sustainable chemistry. And it would drive technological innovation.

These options are, of course, not mutually exclusive. The latter two in particular could make a good marriage.

Chemicals will be essential to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda and the majority of its sustainable development goals. The SDGs, however, will not be reached unless we have both a new and improved framework for the sound management of chemicals and waste and parallel work to mainstream sustainable chemistry. In this latter respect, the German initiative for an International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre (ISC3) is a promising development.

The SAICM post-2020 negotiations offer a real opportunity to reposition chemicals as a key part of solutions to sustainable development. The only question now is whether negotiators will seize the moment. Watch this space.

Paul Hohnen is an associate fellow of the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House), London. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Upcoming events See all

The Future of Food

Calendar icon Virtual (BST Time Zone)

Location icon 15th - 17th June 2021

The Future of Climate Action USA

Calendar icon Virtual

Location icon 28th - 29th September 2021

The Future of Plastics

Calendar icon Virtual

Location icon 12th - 13th October 2021

Sustainable Landscapes and Commodities Forum

Calendar icon Virtual

Location icon 30th November 2021 - 2nd December 2021

Stay updated with the latest news, insights and updates

Sign up to our newsletter