Chemicals are inextricably linked to our lives, essential in areas from medicine and agriculture to consumer goods, clean technologies and overcoming poverty, yet chemicals and the pollution linked with their manufacture, use, and disposal come with costs. For example, estimates for selected industrial and agricultural chemicals unintentional acute and occupational poisonings totals 1,6% of deaths worldwide, more than those caused by malaria. The cost incurred due to asbestos and contaminated drywall, totals over US$125 billion worldwide and the figure is still rising. Exposure to mercury results in health and environmental damage is estimated at US$22 billion. UNEP cost of inaction report also reveals that the estimated cost of poisonings from pesticides in sub-saharan Africa now exceeds total annual overseas development aid given to the region for basic health services, excluding HIV/AIDS.
These concerns take on a new level of urgency as the quantity and range of new and existing chemicals increases in developing countries and economies in transition. A vital element that underpins all aspects of a green economy, sound management of chemicals must become a national and international environmental, public health and development priority.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will address various aspects of human well-being, with accompanying targets and indicators. As human health and the environment are compromised by mismanagement of chemicals and waste, the SDGs should include clear objectives and indicators covering this important issue.
A panel discussion on Integrating the Sound Management of Chemicals in the SDGs, organized by the Geneva Environment Network Secretariat, in collaboration with various partners, took place on 6 May at the International Environment House II. The event was attended by over 70 participants from permanent missions to the UN in Geneva, representatives of IOG, NGOs, civil society and industry.
Opening remarks and chairing
H. E. Franz PERREZ, Switzerland
Fatoumata KEITA-OUANE, Head, UNEP Chemicals Branch
Other members of the panel discussion
Kerstin STENDAHL, Executive Secretary a.i. Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions
Mohamed Ibrahim NASR, Permanent Mission of the Arab Republic of Egypt
Ludovic BERNAUDAT, UNIDO
Lena PERENIUS, Executive Director, European Chemical Industry Council representing the International Council of Chemicals Associations
Interactive discussion with participants
Franz Perrez opened the event highlighting how chemicals and waste are essential and indispensable for our daily life, wellbeing and prosperity, but that they can also pose risks to humans and the environment. Therefore it is important to ensure that chemicals and waste are managed in a sound way. In that case they can contribute not only to economical and social development but also to the protection of our environment and health. It is evident that chemicals and waste have a huge potential to positively contribute to sustainable development.
Quoting Kofi Annan that “we fundamentally depend on natural systems and resources for our existence and development. Our efforts to defeat poverty and pursue sustainable development will be in vain if environmental degradation and natural resource depletion continue unabated.” (Annan, Kofi, In Larger Freedom – Towards Security, Development and Human Rights for All – U.N. Document A/59/2005), § 57), Franz Perrez stressed the importance of the Rio+20 decision to develop Sustainable Development Goals that should bring together the social, economic and environmental perspectives. He highlighted that the potential of sound management of chemicals and waste needs to be well understood and addressed in the current discussion taking place in the so-called open working group on SDG (OWG) in New York, which will define the set of future Sustainable Development Goals for our world. This intergovernmental process has the mandate to provide a report to the UNGA which should serve as a basis to define the future set of Sustainable Development Goals. The OWG has had a series of thematic meetings covering all relevant topics for example poverty elimination, health, labour, economic development, water, education and disaster risk reduction. The thematic meetings have concluded and the co-chairs have issued a working document summarizing the outcome of the debates and proposing 16 focal areas with respective targets.
Fatoumata Keita-Ouane provided introductory remarks, highlighting the link that chemicals have to economic growth and development. She pointed to the Human Development Index (HDI) developed by the United Nations Development Programme as a recognized measure of health, education and income that one can learn from in developing Sustainable Development Goals. Unintentional acute and occupational Poisoning from industrial and agricultural chemicals are among the top five leading causes of death worldwide contributing to over 1 million deaths annually more than malaria which caused 0.9 million deaths in 2004 (WHO 2008). Ms. Keita-Ouane noted, as an example, that the benefits of phasing out lead from gasoline in the United States alone has been proven to be a highly cost-effective measure – evidence shows that benefits outweigh the costs by more than 10 times. This is significant when estimated annual costs of environmentally mediated diseases in children in the United States are US$ 55 billion.
She emphasized that integrating the sound management of chemicals and waste into the identified sustainable development goal focal areas provides an opportunity for the international community:
- To demonstrate that the sound management of chemicals throughout their life cycle is essential to decouple sustainable development advances and to maximize societal benefits from the potential and growing risks to human health and the environment.
- To promote a proactive rather than a reactive approach to the management of harmful substances and hazardous waste seeking to avoid problems rather than just reducing the impacts of such substances/waste once they have been produced.
- To align policies of the health and environment sectors with each other, and develop strong institutional mechanisms to facilitate collaboration with other sectors and greater integration of the sound management of chemicals into the broader development agenda.
- To convince international organisations, agencies for national development, multilateral aid programme and financial partners, that funding sound management of chemicals is critical to economic development and can be cost effective.
Ambassador Franz Perrez, Switzerland, proceeded to lead the panellists through a discussion by raising a series of questions.
Conclusion from discussion
The main conclusions of this event can be summarised as follows:
- Sound chemicals and waste management clearly contributes positively to all three pillars of sustainable development and must therefore be properly included in the future set of SDGs.
- Concrete tangible examples raised by the panellists in relation to the potential benefits of sound management of chemicals and waste included: the sound management of electronic waste with regard to the potential to recycle valuable resources, the creation of jobs and prevention of negative environmental impacts ; the sound use of pesticides and fertilizers in agriculture creating food and the incomes of farmers while minimizing environmental degradation; climate change where chemicals are at the heart of new technologies such as solar panels and efficient insulation of buildings; preventing freshwater pollution with its negative implications on the local communities relying on fishing for their livelihood; as well as artisanal small scale gold mining where moving to more sustainable technologies rather than using mercury would have significant social, economic and environmental benefits.
- The Panel and subsequent discussion recognized that the latest version of the co-chairs paper does address chemicals and waste in a few focus areas and is a good starting point, nonetheless that the sound management of chemicals and wastes is particularly relevant for the following areas: (1) poverty eradication, (2) sustainable agriculture and food security, (3) health and population growth, (6) water, (9) industrialization, (11) sustainable consumption and production, (10) sustainable cities, and (15) means of implementation. Each of these focus areas would benefit from additional targets.
- At the same time, it is important to avoid a wish-list approach, to reflect and build on the existing comprehensive framework for chemicals and waste management, and to promote comprehensive and integrated policies. Therefore, a generic goal drawing from the internationally agreed goal to achieve sustainable management of chemicals throughout their life cycle and of wastes could be adapted and used as a goal or a target in several focus areas. In this context, the approach taken in the area on Conservation and sustainable use of marine resources, oceans and seas was noted which contains a target on the development and full implementation of the existing regional and international regimes governing oceans and seas.
- The SDGs should not be seen as an instrument implying primarily new reporting obligations – in fact, reporting on progress on chemicals and waste management could be done by using the existing mechanisms of the chemicals and waste conventions and SAICM. Thus, the SDGs should serve as an instrument catalysing implementation and support.
- Therefore, means of implementation, including the capacity building, technology transfer and finance are fundamental for achieving the SDGs. Necessary resources should be available for implementation of the chemicals and waste agenda, which can be reflected through the means of implementation focus area. This area should also serve to make the implementation of the existing regimes more efficient. At the national level, the sound management of chemicals is not sufficiently integrated in national development plans and the SDGs could be instrumental to improve integration and coordination of the sound management of chemicals. As industry/private sector plays an important role for the sound management of chemicals and waste, there is a need to ensure that the contribution of the private sector to sustainable development is embedded into the SDGs, including in the focal area on industrialization
More information and documents
UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals: http://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/owg.html