This virtual side event to the fourth session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs MOPP4) was co-organized by by Earthjustice, the Geneva Environment Network (GEN) and the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights.
About this Session
PRTRs are tools to implement the right to know in a field where knowledge for ordinary citizen relies mainly on information, as evidences can rarely be easily observed. PRTRs can provide the data which enables the visualization of the geographical location of registered sources of pollutant releases.
In view of MOPP4, a survey was launched in March 2020 to gather experiences among the Protocol’s Parties and interested stakeholders on the Protocol’s implementation. In its outcome, it appears that the Protocol does provide a solid framework and that, moreover, being a global treaty, it establishes common standards that promote comparability of information on pollutant release and transfer between countries. By making publicly available good quality data on pollutant releases from point and diffuse sources PRTRs facilitate countries’ efforts to reduce pollution.
Yet, it appears also that in the public remains a general low awareness of PRTR, of the Protocol and of their strengths. It’s also noted that if PRTRs are designed to give a picture of significant releases and waste transfers they might not be comprehensive enough for some specific activities or pollutants.
The panel discussed what are the challenges one can face in his or her environment, in terms of toxic or hazardous substances and how can PRTR be an instrument for the right to know and the right to science.
UN Special Rapporteur on the impact on human rights of hazardous substances and wastes
Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Earthjustice
Legal Officer, Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm Conventions
Policy Manager for Industrial Production, European Environment Bureau (EEB)
Why the right to science and what does this mean? | Marcos ORELLANA | UN Special Rapporteur on the impact on human rights of hazardous substances and wastes
In the last session of the Human Rights Council that just concluded a few days ago, I had the opportunity to present my report focused on the right to science to the Council. The reason for elaborating a report on the right to science is two interrelated challenges. One is the triple crisis of environment in the environmental field of pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss and what I see in the field as a lack of alignment between the governmental measures that should be addressing this crisis and the actual measures that are being implemented at the national and international level. The second one is attacks against science. This is disinformation for profit or ideology, which has become quite a lucrative business to disseminate false information. There are firms that specialize on this around the world, with what I’ve termed as mercenary scientists for hire to obfuscate, to seed uncertainty, to confuse society with the purpose of delaying controls or diverting attention. These are tactics of of disinformation and often those tactics include attacks against scientists themselves.
Against this background the Human Rights Council, in the most recent resolution renewing the Toxics and Human Rights Mandate back in 2020, put an emphasis on the science policy interface (SPI) as a key element in making sure that the right to science is actually affected, that it becomes a reality in the lives of people that have the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress. Against this background, the right to science has been largely ignored by the human rights community for many years. Only recently in 2020 the Committee on Economic, Social, Cultural Rights (ESCR) produced a general comment on article 15 of of the covenant that it supervises which comprehensively addresses the right to science in context. That provides a solid basis to explore the implications of the right to science in the toxics content context.
On the anatomy of the report. First of all, it describes the scientific process (the “What is scientific evidence?). It provides an overview of the right to science in international human rights instruments. It then identifies the threats against science and scientists. It addresses what kind of mechanisms are available for science to inform toxics policy. Equally important is to mention what it does not address. It does not get into questions of intellectual property rights nor it does not get into questions of how the scientific research or its applications can themselves violate human rights.
Let me turn to a couple salient points of the report. First of all, the report makes the point that science is a specific and specialized body of knowledge knowledge accumulated through an iterative logical empirically based process but an important point there is that it coexists with other forms of knowledge: the knowledge that indigenous peoples have acquired over centuries, if not millennia, about their local environment, the knowledge that local communities may have about the their daily experiences in interaction with toxics. This leads to at least two consequent implications. One is the participation of the public in the process of scientific research. That’s what the report calls citizen science. It talks about various examples where scientists define the protocols in order for the information and involvement to be useful communities have engaged the process of scientific research.
Another implication is that having participating communities and further amplifying their agency in the issues that they’re particularly concerned with. For example projects carried out in Southeast Asia on pesticide exposure have increased the agency of communities to be the advocates for themselves in regards to the impacts of those pesticides in their communities and environment. A second implication is the participation in decision-making so in that regard one fundamental point that needs to be underscored is that the right to science involves an open participatory decision making process where the rights of access to information, the participation of the public need to be established, protected and implemented.
On normative obligations. I would need to say something about the enabling environment that’s required by the right to science. This involves issues such as the freedom of scientists to determine topics of research, and in that regard, the need for scientific research to engage issues of particular social need. It is often the case that science does not serve necessarily issues of public interest but issues of concern to small segments of the population that have the purchasing capacity of intervening in the market in regards to the technologies and products which are derived from science. This is a broad public point about the need for the scientific research to address questions of public concern and in the toxic sphere we can talk about exposure among other many issues.
As a second element of an enabling environment as a normative issue in the right to science is the freedom of scientists to act from undue pressure, freedom of expression and information — the ability to engage in peer review to share information to communicate with peers and also to inform and alert society on the dangers associated with certain processes or with certain products. These are some elements of of the right to science as elaborated in in the report and the right can be found in various international instruments starting from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the ESCR Covenant at the global level as well as the regional level. In the Americas, there’s the most elaborated formulation of the right to science in any regional system. The Arab system also has quite an elaborate formulation. In Europe, the right to science is not explicitly recognized as such but that said the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights speaks to scientific evidence in cases involving the right to life, the right to family life, and other environmental related human rights cases. The African Commission jurisprudence for example also speaks to the importance of independent monitoring access to independent scientific evidence for communities to be able to participate in decision making on projects that may impact their lives. Even where the right to science is not explicitly addressed in international human rights instruments, the bodies that are tasked with overseeing basic human rights instruments have incorporated scientific evidence into their analysis when it comes to the environment and also in the specifics of the toxic context.
Another key point is the use of science to inform policy. Now this may sound even obvious and in the interactive dialogue that I had at the Council, there were many states that took the floor and reiterated this point but unfortunately in practice, policy is not in every instance designed with the benefit of the best available scientific evidence. There is a misalignment here and that misalignment is not an accident. It is the result of disinformation campaigns. In unpacking this normative content and the use of science to inform policy, the right as formulated in the Covenant is for people to benefit from scientific knowledge. That’s where the translation of the knowledge into actual policies makes a whole difference.
On the precautionary principle. Now in order for that translation process to take place, the availability and accessibility of scientific information to society but also to specialized circles such as fields of knowledge or scientists themselves, are just as critical. This would that would enable governments to take measures and align policies with the best available scientific evidence.
One point that is underscored in the report is about the precautionary principle because in this process of translation, it has sometimes been put forward that the principle is a tool against science and against scientists as it enables decision making in disregard of science. The report is very strong and clear against this argument because the precautionary principle takes account of the character of science as an iterative process, where science does not offer solutions, and that it does not offer evidence on all issues at all times in every situation. It is a process of incremental knowledge building where questions are made and then the science is interrogated by other scientists. Our knowledge continues: science and scientific evidence reveal evidence of possible risks to society. In this context and in relation to toxics, evidence is the basis for the precautionary principle, where the evidence is not yet able to draw definitive causal connections between substances and impacts, between processes and impacts, showing that the principle is an inherent part of the right to science and can be seen as an element of due diligence. This is a point that has been underscored by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. The element of due diligence in enacting with prudence and caution and operating under the precautionary principle when scientific evidence is not yet able to draw conclusive connections and causation.
On the support for research that derives public benefits. One other point that I wish to make on the normative content is on science policy interface platforms because that’s an area where this process of translation of the scientific evidence into actual policy can take place. In the toxics field, there are several multilateral environmental agreements (MEA) that are defined to deal with a specific subject matter, whether it’s persistent organic pollutants (POPs), the transboundary movements of wastes, or international trade in industrial chemicals or pesticides. The terms of reference and the scope are limited in each of those MEAs. Each of those MEAs amongst others, they have SPI platforms that services the MEA, and plays a key role in the development of the MEA.
But so far in the international community, there is no comprehensive SPI that can look at the global scope of issues in regards to chemicals and waste that can scan the horizon and that can provide authoritative assessment increase awareness. That piece is lacking. We see it in the climate space with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). We see it in the biodiversity space. But we do not see it yet in the chemicals and waste cluster and it’s a significant gap. I would argue this because one of the elements of normative content is international cooperation. International cooperation is critical because science and scientific enterprise is a process and a project that takes a lot of resources, and there are many countries in the world that lack those resources for conducting their own original science, and therefore would benefit from the scientific evidence and the science policy interface at the global level established in the toxics field.
On the threats against science and against scientists. As mentioned earlier, the misalignment between actual policy and the scientific evidence is for the most part not an accident. It is the result of deliberate tactics and campaigns by firms that specialize in seeding uncertainty and confusion in society exceeding ignorance. Ignorance favors the status quo and the status quo favors those say “responsible” businesses that are making a profit out of poisoning people in the toxic sphere: tactics to divert attention; to delay regulation; green-washing; woke-washing; blaming the poor while still perpetuating policies that harmed them; and disinformation.
These also include tactics that were adopted by the tobacco industry in the 1950s: putting an emphasis on alternative explanations as something else; claiming lack of proof and demanding ever increasing amounts of research leading to paralysis by analysis; and funding front groups groups that appear legitimate advocacy organizations but are actually front groups for pushing the talking points of the industry in question. These tactics of the 1950s have been applied in virtually every field of the chemicals and toxics cluster. This is of course a direct attack against the right to science.
If that wasn’t problematic enough, attacks against scientists are also very problematic. When scientists are silenced, science is silenced. There’s also another threat that merits very careful attention, especially as the debates to establish a global platform for a science policy interface are underway: conflicts of interest. In other words, inappropriate financial relations between scientists and decision makers. The approach to dealing with conflicts of interest in many instances rests on management. The argument that there are scientists that are associated or related to industry that should have a role in the science policy interface because of the expertise and knowledge that they bring. That approach is not the approach that has been taken by the IPCC for example which has an approach that rests on avoiding conflicts of interest altogether to preserve the integrity of the scientific information and assessments and also to protect the IPCC as an institution, to protect the scientists themselves and to enhance public trust in the scientific assessments, that the IPCC carries out. So avoidance of conflict of interest is a very important point that needs to be kept in mind in the design of any global platform on science policy interface.
Conclusion. Given the time, I will very swiftly conclude to point out that the right to science requires governments to align their policies with the best available science, and in doing so science policy interface platforms are the key to transforming knowledge into policy. Thank you for your attention.
The PRTRs: An instrument for the right to know | Yves LADOR | Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Earthjustice
We have two events which have come together in a very short period: the reports presented a few weeks ago by the Special Rapporteur and the fourth Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol on PRTRs next week. It’s not only an issue of timing but there’s also substantial connections between these two questions and what we just heard from the Special Rapporteur about the fact that scientific knowledge is developed alongside other types of knowledge, that you also have public participation to the knowledge production, and that you have access to information and so on… These are precisely rights which are defined by the Aarhus Convention: the Convention on access to information, public participation, and access to justice in environmental matters, which is actually the the parent or the umbrella Convention to the Protocol on PRTRs.
What is PRTR? PRTR is an instrument on the right to know. It’s a tool in order to implement this right and that’s why it’s totally connected to the discussion that we are having right now. It’s a rather recent instrument that was adopted in Kyiv and entered into force in 2009. The PRTR are pollutant release and transfer registers. This means they are an inventory that you do at the national level on the different type of pollution or toxic material which industrial sites or other types of sources are using, are transferring, or are keeping in their own stocks. The objective is precisely to have public access to this information so that we can know what is in our environment. We must never forget that we do not have a direct knowledge of our environment. We cannot spontaneously know what is the quality of the air we breathe. It’s not because we aren’t able to smell anything horrible that it means it is totally harmful. Same thing for the water we drink same thing and for what we eat. So we need some analysis, some technical knowledge about what is the environment we are living in. We cannot take it for granted that it is absolutely healthy.
This type of situation of course is something new as it relates to the industrial age when we have transformed our environment to such a degree that it is absolutely important to have a technical knowledge about what is surrounding us. There’s a point which we have to have in mind very clearly due to some confusions about the PRTR. The PRTR is not an instrument that regulates pollution, it only regulates the information on pollution . What is really very important is for example when we talk with authorities who are dealing with the fire departments or health departments, it is more important to know what is in the atmosphere, what are in the stocks, what are in the buildings than to know if people are following correctly the rules. The reason is if you do have a toxic product in one place, it’s important to know now that information or whether a certain stock might be illegal. But if ever nobody knows about it, then you will really have an issue because you cannot protect the people. For example, if you need any interventions from the fire departments, they might be put at risk (if there is a lack of information).
The very first thing we want is to make sure that everybody applies and follows the law, and provides correct protection of the environment. But we know that the situation is not always fully implemented. So how do we deal with that? As such, it is very important to make sure that we do have correct information about what is in our environment and public authorities need to know that in various ways. As such, the quality of the information we have about our about environment is absolutely crucial and must not be directly related or connected to enforcement. Enforcement of course is absolutely crucial. We’re not saying that it’s not the issue but having the two tracks may actually help the enforcement. For example, just to be very practical, we know that in practice when fire departments are doing inquiries or they go on sites to see what’s happening, then of course they push people to enforce it, but they will say, “We’re not the enforcement authority. We want to know what is there, because in case we have to come in because a fire, we want to know whether the building will explode or not. Then of course they also push for enforcement because they want these toxic things to be rid of as quickly as possible. So we see that it’s extremely important to have a clear process and to distinguish the process of the information management and directly the enforcement. Both are connected but it’s important that they are disconnected, as we see that in many many other fields and not only for the pollutants (such as in the field of health).
It is also important that information has a free flow and that we can know what’s around us, where afterwards we can deal with the question of of enforcement. So it is an instrument that can help put pressure on the question of the levels of pollution, but we must remember that it is a specific track of information, as it also has an effect that companies usually do not want to be identified as being among the biggest polluters.
Qualities of the instruments. These instruments are basically based on the information which are provided by those who are dealing with the source. That is the the very first element, where the states have to collect this information, make the instruments publicly accessible, and user friendly. This is extremely important because though we have experts in many administrations who have very good knowledge and could do a huge listing of different toxic substances, these may not be totally understandable for the rest. So the information may be there but we can’t do anything about it. As such, it’s very important that we can have access to this type of information.
One of its objectives is not only to collect the information, but to make it user friendly, we can see that the PRTR lists a number of pollutants, and the protocol identifies 86 pollutants that have to be registered. A number of countries have more, where some countries are using it also now in the field of climate change, where we can ask sources about their CO2 emissions which are our first different type of category as a highly toxic pollutants but nevertheless are very important for the management of the environment).
Then you have two type of sources. You have the concentrated points of emissions or of sources and you have also the more diffused ones. These are two types of information, where the activities around them are different. The way you can evaluate their impact is also very different but it’s extremely important to have both of these types of sources and to allow public participation in the way these instruments are being developed.
The Protocol is something that needs to be absolutely mandated. Though there are procedural aspects, these instruments are absolutely relevant for the information we need, so it has to be mandatory. It has to be annual and it has to cover what is called the multimedia (having various media transporting the pollutant, from air, water, etc. to different places). It has to be specific on the sites on the places and on the different substances.
Conclusion. I wanted to show you a very concrete example. If we take the Swiss register, the closest site to us which has some toxics, a place that could perhaps be dangerous, is seen as a white dot not far away from where we are sitting. There are other dots on the other side of the river, which you can click on and these will lead you to different links to see what are the the the emissions, the pollutants they have. This is the type of user-friendly and geo-localized information that we are supposed to be having for our environment.
I wanna thank you for for the attention. I think we see very well how this instrument is a tool for our knowledge about our environment. It is really something directly related to the question of the right to science as it’s one of the instruments (and far from being the only one) that allows us to enter into the knowledge about our environment. Therefore they are absolutely critical too and unfortunately they’re not used enough. They’re not known enough but as we can see within the previous image they are rather easy to use and they are supposed to be friendly for the users.
How does the Secretariat of the legally binding instruments you represent view tools such as PRTRs? How do you see a human rights based approach to these issues including the right to science? | Amélie TAOUFIQ-CAILLIAU | Legal Officer, Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm Conventions
It’s a pleasure to talk about these issues now especially after the breakthrough by the Human Rights Council last Friday on the global recognition of the new human rights to a clean, healthy, safe and sustainable environment. For sure the BRS Conventions on hazardous chemicals and waste are linked to human rights, by taking their common objectives to protect human health and the environment against the harmful effects of hazardous chemicals and waste.
The PRTRs is an acronym we don’t use much under the BRS Conventions, and yet it is linked as it would greatly help the work and the implementation of the Basel Convention and connecting the dots. For me as a lawyer and also as an internationalist, the linkages between these very scientifically binding treaties and human rights are obvious from these objectives. I think that PRTRs would be important tools, where BRS has been using it without naming it. Although they are global tools, they need national implementation, and international arms to to be effective and to be implemented. These tools then would greatly help the national implementation of these global treaties.
Regarding the human rights-based approach, if you look at the framework, basically what human rights are supposed to do is to protect, respect, remedy or fulfill. With these tools which would greatly help proving the effectiveness of the implementation of the BRS Conventions, our parties can better facilitate our implementation. To recall some of the mechanisms on which these conventions are based, for example, you have the Basel convention and the Rotterdam Convention which are centered on a very specific procedure called the Prior Informed Consent procedure. This is very much based on information parties consent or not to the transitory movements of the listed chemicals and wastes on the basis of available information. This is one of the mechanism that would greatly benefit from the tools we’re talking about today.
Regarding the science-based policy decisions, the right to know, and the right to science, under the BRS Conventions, you have a very specific listing processes of chemicals and waste under the annexes of each of the convention respectively. This process is and has to be based on science. The decisions, the specific committee bodies under the Convention, the Chemical Review Committee, the POPs review committee at the Stockholm Convention and CRC under the Rotterdam Convention which regularly meet, alongside the recommendations they provide should be on the basis of sound science. We have since a few years ago a framework under the Basel Convention called From Science to Action: on the basis of this information, scientific information feeds the intergovernmental process, per chemicals listing or the cushion under each these subsidiary bodies both technical and scientific, they recommend while the governing bodies BRS Conventions then take the decisions to list these chemicals or waste on the basis of sound scientific information.
These tools, the PRTRs would really benefit this work and this process of listing. These conventions are party-driven, meaning it’s intergovernmental, it’s legally-binding, and parties are the driving force of these Conventions on the basis of such information. If under each national jurisdictions, each party had a complete PRTRs, this would greatly feed and help the process the different mechanisms and processes and procedures under the BRS Conventions.
There are other types of obligations under these treaties that also revolve around information. Parties have the obligation to report on the implementation of the listed chemicals and waste. They also, for example under the Stockholm Convention, have the obligation to submit a national implementation plan to the secretariat, also based on information, where the quality of reporting would really improve if these are based on complete and well-fed PRTRs to conclude.
There’s a caveat to highlight: because intergovernmental decisions are in principle by consensus, it may sometimes take a long time to have a certain decision. For example, in the annexes, the coverage on chemicals is still very limited compared to the reality and these Conventions would not be effective without — under the third pillar of a human rights-based approach to remedy, to fulfill, to respect — efficient compliance mechanisms and enforcement mechanisms at the level of the parties and at the national levels. This is why the process under this intergovernmental processes, among which are the BRS conventions or partnerships with different stakeholders, we have to have a 360 degree vision partnership with all stakeholders including the public, the civil society. What is at the heart of action is information and and proper science and embodied in the conventions are these tools that would help greatly the work of the Convention and of the parties responsible for their implementation to the PRTRs.
So indeed among our partners we have entities from the private sector entities, from the civil society who greatly contribute to the work and the implementation as observers of the BRS Conventions including at intergovernmental meetings, with the next one being on 22 June. Thank you.
PRTRs from a perspective on the ground | Christian SCHAIBLE | Policy Manager for Industrial Production, European Environment Bureau (EEB)
I think one very important point from our perspective is the key aim of the PRTRS is that it’s just one of the many tools to actually help preventing and reducing pollution at the sources. That’s the end goal and it should facilitate public participation in the environmental decision making. The very basis for that is that we understand what is going on and can track progress and performance and I would insist for all the stakeholders, not only the industry but also the decision makers, to understand how they are delivering in the policy to reduce impacts. This is also part of the implementation of the protocol, where its purpose is also for governance, to track trends and demonstrate progress on pollution reduction, and to set priorities to evaluate progress to achieve the environmental policies and other programs or objectives we have set. This is a very important starting point to what should be the function of the PRTRs.
What I would like to stress in terms of chemical exposure is that there’s also a very limited scope. At the moment, in terms of pollutants being covered in the protocol it’s actually outdated with science and I think that needs to catch up with the availability of data that is around and that we can use. For instance, on the product side, because PRTRs should also cover tracking what is the impact of products (what they call diffuse sources), there’s not so much out there in Europe and is actually situated outside of the European Union. I would say that we have some meaningful PRTR reporting in the releases from products. For example the Norwegian or the Nordic PRTR where they use emission factors on a group of products being used in that country, where they can show the impact of the use of those products. We don’t have that for the other PRTRs.
There are a lot of shortcomings in terms of the outputs and the inputs on data being used for industrial activities. For example, on water consumption, energy consumption, and resource footprint information in terms of the impact of the industrial processes, there’s very little information being shared to the PRTRs. I’m not saying it’s not available, it’s just not being shared in a meaningful way within the PRTR interfaces for the chemicals specifically. You’re probably familiar with the REACH Regulation we have in Europe, so this is where a lot of data is being generated about how we can get rid of the worst of the worst chemicals called substances of very high concern. This is just the top of the chemical iceberg of the worst chemicals we would need to substitute, but there are of course many other hazardous substances in the chemical universe. But at least there for the subsequent concern there are some tools which is actually called the Right to Know Article 33 where once can identify whether the substances are present or not in the articles. There’s very limited information, and we have a little database. There’s also the zip database but for the moment it’s a yes/no answer on what is in the products. We don’t not know how or who produced them, how much and where they end up. This is a big issue. We have also in terms of what is the fate of the chemicals, where do they end up.
To make it short, I think it’s all about having better data integration and knowledge integration. There’s a lot of data out there but it’s not being integrated in a meaningful way possibly. Also because we had someone from the BRS Conventions in relation to waste, there’s a lot of information about hazard characterization in certain waste streams which is not being used or integrated in these data portals. We cannot track for example where certain waste streams are going, or what type of waste we are talking about, and who is managing that waste. It’s data that is actually available but it’s not being shared openly.
There are many kinds of right to know projects from citizens actually feeding into databases which have been generated which I would like to highlight. For example, there is the Worldwide Air Quality Monitoring Data Index, which are from universities. We have collated all the monitoring data to bring it together at one place so you have one interface where you can check the air quality in different cities as we speak. It also provides forecast of how air pollution levels could be so it gives a tool for citizens like you and me to be informed. For example, if you want to go out go and have a run if you should rather do it later in the day or maybe another day. There’s also a hackAIR Project from NGOS, which is about air pollution in the cities, where low cost monitors feed data to the monitoring frameworks, which are insufficient even in Europe.
To conclude, it’s good to know that you are being exposed to dangerous chemicals and where the danger comes from, but I think it would even be better to know what we are doing, what the industry is doing, what our governments are doing to prevent the impacts from happening. I would say our focus of data generation and knowledge sharing would be how to deal with pollution prevention at the sources, how to get rid of pollution, how to get rid of impacts, and how to track progress to get to safe living conditions, good local food, climate compatible way of life, clean water, and how are we dealing with essentials.
We are not there yet. There’s a big gap on environmental footprint, information for the products, the hazard ratings. As Amazon is able to use IT to track behavior of its customers, it should be possible to know the footprints of certain activities. We just need to integrate the data and knowledge and centralize this, and allow for a user-friendly access to this content.
What is also missing is transparency and accountability in decision making when we decide on policy or standards. There the Special Rapporteur has made several points about the bottlenecks linked to confidential business information or intellectual property rights. When it comes to science and basic information being labeled as confidential, we should be very clear that whenever this information data science relates to policy making or standards making, it should not be possible to hide that information. The tricky bit is how to evade a conflict of interest and how to ensure that science, from risk assessment to financing, is free from corporate interests.
The pace principle should come into play where the ones who produce those toxic chemicals hazardous chemicals should pay a levy on the marketing of the substances which could be used for example to fund either identified independent scientists to assess the risks of those chemicals.
One final point I would like to make is about the comparability of progress, and the PRTR should help compare the tracking of progress and efforts on delivering on pollution prevention. The current way on how the PRTR data being presented is not user friendly because it doesn’t say for example what the hazard index is per capita in a certain country or what the air pollution index is. We can measure this against for example WHO guidelines, where we have new target values. We need this kind of meaningful index on where are we going to in terms of pollution prevention and presenting the data should be used to track progress (in terms of SDGs for example). There’s still a long way to go to make the PRTRs the right helpful tool to not only know more about the status of the environment currently but how we can track performance and benchmark all the actors involved. Thank you very much.
There have been various efforts, in the field of aviation for example, that show similar work. How do we link these different ongoing discussions and debates?
Yves LADOR | Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Earthjustice
- On what can be improved on what is being registered in the PRTRs. Science today is bringing more information and has a wider view on things. There is a bit of a historical trap in which the PRTRs are today due to the time when they’ve been conceived, as well as perhaps due to the fact that it takes time to create the formula and do the practice. It is a strong but a heavy mechanism and so there is a backlog with which we need to be catch up. When one does the comparison between what is required to be registered and the global science, what we’re lacking right now is a place or a forum where this can be discussed.
- The issues that we are raising right now are pretty interesting in the perspective of the next meeting of the UNEA at the beginning of next year. We know that Switzerland has the intention to propose the development of a science policy interface exactly that has been described by the Special Rapporteur, which we have on biodiversity and climate change but not for chemicals. This PRTR is a particularly important tool for the development of such in a science policy interface because a lot of the elements uh that are in this report are particularly relevant for the question of the independence of science in the field of toxics and chemicals.
- Historically-speaking, the chemicals science (and thus its industry) is much older than climate science, and as such the former has been entangled with a huge number of interests. As such, it’s very important to have a real place where independent science can be discussed and brought together. This is this is going to be quite a big challenge in the coming years for the development of the science policy interface.
- This connection between the PRTRs, between what is being done by the BRS Conventions and what is being discussed at the HRC… this is a link which is unfortunately not very often done and definitely needs to be reinforced. Discussions and debates are also siloed, and are often largely affected by the lack of transparency in the different industries.
Christian SCHAIBLE | Policy Manager for Industrial Production, European Environment Bureau (EEB)
- There is a need to get a common understanding on the right science through the best available science. What often happens is once we know what we know about the evidence, and when the evidence is clear, the question arises: can we even afford to discuss longer on actions that need to be taken?
This is the critical point where the governance aspect comes into play. We have elected government officials who take the decision at the end of the day, and there’s always the question of how does this decision fit into the science, especially as there’s a duty for governments to take into account the science.
- This is something we as NGOs would say that there are non-negotiables in such decisions: the right to not being exposed to hazardous chemicals or have good living conditions especially those affected by climate change. These are non-negotiable. We should also take into consideration what other actions need to be taken that can deliver and preserve the living conditions of this planet.
- There also should be some effectiveness in scaling on the efforts being made by the actors involved. We’ve seen with tobacco, asbestos, PFAS chemicals, and among others where we actually know there’s an issue, that doubt is created and led to a “paralysis by analysis”.
- When it comes to key performance indicators (KPIs) and delivering on the desired outcomes, I also think getting transparency and accountability is also important for increasing public trust. Knowledge sharing on how to deal with solutions to a problem is important instead of sweeping the problems under the carpet.
Amélie TAOUFIQ-CAILLIAU | Legal Officer, Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm Conventions
- At the core of the BRC Conventions is the science policy interface that is really the key for the work under these Conventions, from the technical and scientific work at the primary stage of the subsidiary bodies, in particular Chemical Review Committee of the Rotterdam Convention and the POPs Review Committee of the Stockholm Convention. Although the experts sitting at these meetings of bodies are appointed by governments, they still have to sit in their technical capacity as chemical experts.
- Moreover, another important work that has been done based on the science policy interface is the production of the best available techniques and best environmental practices under the Stockholm Convention. If you look at the websites of the BRS Conventions, there have been quite a few decisions by the Conference of the Parties on these science-based techniques and practices to better handle and manage in a more environmentally sound manner the chemicals covered under the Stockholm Convention.
Kristof DOUÇOT | Environmental Affairs Officer | UNECE
- As seen during COVID epidemic and pandemic, we saw the different reactions to scientific facts that can be developed, how these also change over time and how these are linked with other issues that are equally important. I think that one of the advantages of the Protocol on PRTRs and PRTRs in general compared to other systems is that you have this aspect of making information available to everybody in an easy way as it allows one to actually follow the different steps in the decision making process and get involved.
- On the other hand, from what we see from parties with very successful systems in place, it’s also important that the public is aware of that the government uses, from scientists, to various industries to the general public. When they really have a direct use of the PRTR data and when those who set the system up in the first place are able to understand what kind of data is needed for different stakeholder groups, and when this communication is done in a good way, you are able to have successful PRTR systems that really play a role not only in making it easier for governance but also in being able to track and adapt different policy decision.
- We also saw with COVID that though you get this information from the science, these change also over time. So you need to be able to adapt. This is something that the PRTR gives you: a way to track over time so that you can adapt depending on the evidence you receive from the reporting.
Christian SCHAIBLE | Policy Manager for Industrial Production, European Environment Bureau (EEB)
- In response, when looking at the activities of the PRTRs in relation to big industrial activities, we have developed this EU Best Available Technique (BAT) Reference Document. It’s also a process where we have NGOs and industries and member states involved. However, when you really go into the what is BAT actually, and what does it mean, we do not have a forward-looking approach.
- Here’s where it becomes more tricky: when we define what best practices are versus what is just average practice. What I meant before with the use of KPIs, is that for example, if we set a depollution index, or decontamination objective as the benchmark to reach, then we can report and compare against this benchmark. For the POPs example there are a lot industrial sites where soil and groundwater monitoring data are not being shared or have not yet been tracked.
- This is something where PRTRs are just a tool to an end to help share best practices, efforts and knowledge on what is happening around the globe. The comparability is something very important and where UNECE and OECD and other partners are working very hard to make the data more integrated and more usable at a global level. From the perspective of an end user, it’s very useful to compare different countries and use information in a more effective way. You can download the data sets, have electronic comparisons, and put data into the context from how much emission is going out, how much impact does it have, and what an installation is producing.
- This can be a bit of a drawback as it has been too free, and the full potential of those systems are not being made use of. But we’re working on, and so that’s the target for the next cycle after the MOP.
Why do we all in this field so often have the impression that we’re still working with an old mindset, like things have not evolved?
Yves LADOR | Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Earthjustice
- To some extent, I really share this impression, because when you have to deal with large issues, for example, climate change, you’re dealing with different sectors and the different way things are organized. It’s not just about science because science goes on its own way.
- However, when you don’t have this interface, there’s a big gap where the difference between approaches are huge. There’s a lot also to learn in our field from what has happened during COVID and the way scientific issues were managed. You have an old approach based on expertise and that’s probably what is reflected by the BATs and the best available technologies. The one that has been developed more recently — a science policy interface — and we already see a big difference there.
- COVID time has been a very challenging time for all of us but it has also been a carrier of a lot of opportunities in raising consciousness. There’s an important work being done on plastic under the BRS Conventions, and although COVID has delayed a lot of actions and activities (even our COP meetings), it’s also an opportunity to come better equipped.
- A great example shown however is the partnerships that exist now in plastic, where we continue the shift. I don’t agree that we are still in the old ways. From disturbances and imbalances we’ve gone through this pandemic, there are a huge amount of opportunities, and as such there’s a lot of occasions for parties and other stakeholders to act as one. We do have an immense opportunity build back better.
- Looking at the PRTRs and when it was adopted, many things have happened. We have learned how to engage with people remotely and digitally. There’s a lot of satellite monitoring data, product benchmarking data sets, the computers are much more powerful.
- The digitalization agenda can also work for us. For example, enforcers can do reporting through electronic means not paperwork, and you can get the data much faster. With so much tools out there we could use to work for us which can really facilitate the benchmarking compliance, promotion and identification of progress and hotspots, integration of satellite, remote monitoring among others, for PRTR systems.
- Do you think that at the next MOP we are going to take some steps forward and leave these old mindsets behind? Yes and no. It definitely takes a long time for a legally binding instrument to to get up to date and it will normally never be in the first line with regards to being up to date.
- But, it’s also something that provides a lot of opportunity to develop our systems and our mindsets. The Protocol requires parties to provide easy access to this kind the data on pollutant releases and transfers and that’s really the the core of it. This is what gives everybody the opportunity to be a part of the development of a PRTR.
- However, in practice this is very difficult for a lot of people to be involved because it’s perceived as something to be very complex. Still there is this obligation to provide easy access and there is this the sense of providing data that is useful for different groups of stakeholders.
- As such, I invite everybody to talk to people that are involved in PRTRs and let them know what kind of information you need, to have a discussion: Can PRTRs actually provide that information? Does it make sense to include this kind of information to the system? It’s all about communicating and sharing what you know and information that might be useful for you to work better.
In addition to the live WebEx and Facebook transmissions, the video is available on this webpage.
- Aahrus Convention
- MoP7 Aarhus Convention & MoPP4 Protocol on PRTRs
- Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights
- The right to science in the context of toxic substances | Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes | A/HRC/48/61
- HRC48 Side Event | The right to science in the context of toxic substances