Business innovation | Opinion

Why chemicals management is essential for a safer, healthier world

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Ignorance is not bliss

A new UN report is a timely reminder of the need for close control of the $5tn chemicals industry

“Tommy was a chemist, but Tommy is no more; for what he thought was H2O was H2SO4”

The old schoolroom rhyme taught us two essential lessons about chemicals management. The first is that chemical compounds can have vastly different characteristics. The second is that we need to know water from sulphuric acid before using them safely. Information and transparency are central.

The importance of knowing how chemicals are made, used and disposed of – and how best to manage them – is the subject of a landmark UN Environment synthesis report recently released in Nairobi.

The new Global Chemicals Outlook report will have – and deserves – a wide readership in governmental, industry and NGO circles.

The report’s core message is simple. As the acting executive director of UN Environment, Joyce Msuya, succinctly puts it: “We cannot live without chemicals. Nor can we live with the consequences of their bad management.”

A $5tn sector 

The report’s key findings serve as a reminder of how rapidly the sector has developed during the globalisation era.

While the IT, finance and energy sectors have taken much of the limelight over the last decades, we learn that the dynamic global chemicals sector was worth over $5tn in 2017 and is set to almost double in size by 2030, driven by global mega-trends in chemicals-intensive industries such as construction, agriculture and electronics. Production is growing in all regions, but most growth is taking place in east Asia.

The industry has registered some 142m chemical compounds and routinely uses 6,000 of these. Frontrunner companies are introducing sustainable supply chain management and risk reduction beyond compliance. 

Waste hazard 

So what’s the problem? Well, one result of the increasing production and use is that large quantities of hazardous chemicals and other related pollutants, such as plastic waste and pharmaceuticals, are leaking into the environment. These are now “ubiquitous” in the environment and even in humans.

Ever-more potentially dangerous chemicals are contained in products and waste, raising the prospect of other problems developing in the future.

While the full extent of health and other costs is not known, the World Health Organisation has already estimated (in 2016) the global burden of disease from selected chemicals at 1.6 million lives lost.

Chemical pollution also threatens a range of ecosystem services. Pesticides have been found to impact pollinators; excess use of phosphorus and nitrogen in agriculture continues to contribute to ocean dead zones; and, chemicals used in sunscreens impact tropical coral reefs.

Why now?

So, developed in close consultation with stakeholders from industry, government and NGOs (some sessions of which I was lucky enough to moderate), the report is especially timely now for three main reasons.

The first is that the UN’s Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) won’t be achieved without chemicals, but neither will they be achieved with a “business as usual” approach that doesn’t address the stark reality of chemical pollution. A new approach is urgently needed that addresses all sectors and stakeholders.

The second is that such a new approach is now in prospect. Intergovernmental discussions – which involve multistakeholder representatives – are underway on a possible new comprehensive framework for the sound management of chemicals and waste beyond 2020. The new report will doubtless help focus minds on costs, benefits and opportunities (which is something that Innovation Forum has covered before).

The third is that while the existing international organisations, treaties and approaches to chemicals management have reduced the risks of some chemicals and wastes, more is needed to help them leverage their synergies. Increased coordination and collaboration would help increase impact and efficiency, as would better partnerships with industry and civil society.

Action is essential. The use, for example, of some pesticides – already linked to collapses in insect (including bee) populations – could potentially wreak more havoc than climate change and in a nearer term. Promising business options include using better designed or less hazardous chemicals or even non-synthetic chemicals based practices.

Like Tommy, we all need more and better information on the chemicals we use.

A former diplomat and associate fellow of the Royal Institute for International Affairs at Chatham House, Paul Hohnen has advised governments, international organisations and business on high level sustainability policy issues over a 40 year career.

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