Chemicals and waste pollution is a global threat that warrants global action. According to scientists, the lack of a science-policy interface is limiting decision makers ability to identify and address the related threats in a timely manner. Mobilizations are ongoing to establish a global science-policy panel on chemicals, waste and pollution prevention.
Chemicals and Waste
As indicated in the Global Chemicals Outlook II (GCO-II), published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2019, the size of the global chemical industry exceeded 5 trillion USD in 2017, and is projected to double by 2030. Consumption and production are rapidly increasing in emerging economies. Global supply chains, and the trade of chemicals and products, are becoming increasingly complex. Similar trends are true for waste generation. The World Bank estimates that waste generation will increase from 2.01 billion tonnes in 2016 to 3.40 billion tonnes in 2050. At least 33% of this waste is mismanaged globally today through open dumping or burning.
Hazardous chemicals and pollutants, such as plastic waste and pharmaceutical products, continue to be released in large quantities. They are ubiquitous in humans and the environment and are accumulating in material stocks and products, highlighting the need to avoid future legacies through sustainable materials management and circular business models.
A landmark study – Pollution and health: a progress update – published in the Lancet Planetary Health in May 2022, revealed that pollution is responsible for one in six deaths worldwide, 9 million deaths per year, and thus remains the largest environmental risk factor for disease and premature death. Noting little progress against pollution despite efforts by committed agencies, the authors highlight recommendations to address this planetary threat, jointly with the crises of climate change and biodiversity. These include the establishment of a globally supported science-policy interface to inform intervention, influence research, and guide funding.
Scientific studies have been and are being conducted to understand the impacts of the increasing production, diversification and management of chemicals and waste. However, international policy-makers do not have yet a global mechanism to stay informed regarding the up-to-date scientific evidence, limiting their ability to identify and address these threats in a timely manner.
Strengthening the Science-Policy Interface
GCO-II concluded that the global goal to minimize adverse impacts of chemicals and waste would not be achieved by 2020, and called for urgent ambitious action at all levels, including strengthening the science-policy interface through enhanced collaboration of scientists and decision-makers.
As international policy-makers do not have a global mechanism to stay informed regarding the up-to-date scientific evidence, various stakeholders, including civil society organizations and leading experts, have been calling for the establishment of a global science-policy body on chemicals, waste and pollution prevention.
There is a need for international science based assessment of plastics and chemicals. The assessment should cease cross cutting issues and should increase the visibility of the urgency for action, in a timely way. At the same time, scientific assessment should not delay implementation because we already have robust science on hazardous substances and waste and action is needed now.
Marcos ORELLANA, UN Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes
At the UN Environment Assembly
In 2019, the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-4) recognized that science is needed to set priorities, for policy-making and to monitor progress: science-based decision-making should be promoted at all levels, and that the science-policy interface (SPI) needs to be strengthened (resolution 4/8 ). UNEA-4 further requested the Executive Director of UNEP to prepare an assessment of options for strengthening the science-policy interface at the international level (see section below on “Options for Strengthening the Science-Policy Interface“).
Ahead of second segment of the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) in February 2022, Costa Rica, Ghana, Mali, Switzerland, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Uruguay proposed a draft resolution on the establishment of a science policy panel to support action on chemicals, waste and pollution. A series of preparatory webinars were held ahead of the assembly, including in Geneva on 14 December 2021.
At UNEA-5.2, delegates adopted a resolution on the matter (UNEP/EA5/L14/REV.1). This resolution supports the establishment of a comprehensive and ambitious science policy panel to contribute further to the sound management of chemicals and waste and to prevent pollution.
People are dying and suffering from pollution. Indoor and outdoor air pollution alone causes seven million premature deaths each year. Friends, we need to close the time between scientific discovery and action – or we will be in deeper trouble. We need a nimbler and more inclusive science-policy interface – one that will accelerate effective policies and follow-up action. This is how we will save and improve lives, protect the vulnerable, conserve nature and allow all communities to thrive and prosper.
Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director, speaking at UNEP@50 on 3 March 2022
As highlighted by H.E. Amb. Franz Perrez at the UNEA 5.2 debriefing, the core functions of the SPP will be to undertake horizon scanning to identify issues of relevance to policy makers and propose evidence-based options, conduct assessments of current issues and identify potential evidence-based options, in particular those relevant to developing countries, provide up-to-date and relevant information and identify key gaps in scientific research, and finally facilitate information sharing, in particular with developing countries seeking relevant scientific information
This is a major development that will fill a gap, as such panels already exist for climate change (IPCC) and biodiversity (IPBES). Now each planetary crisis will have it dedicated scientific body.
A first meeting of the ad hoc open–ended working group (OEWG) requested to be convened by the resolution, will take place in Nairobi on 6 October 2022. The idea is to conclude this process after maximum four meetings in 2024, after which UNEP will organize a diplomatic international conference.
Options for Strengthening the Science-Policy Interface
The report “Assessment of Options for Strengthening the Science-Policy Interface at the International Level for the Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste” was developed by UNEP in response to formal reporting requests by UNEA at its fourth session (UNEA resolution 4/8 on the sound management of chemicals and waste) for UNEA-5.2. It was presented and discussed in a briefing organized by the Geneva Environment Network in October 2020.
The report seeks to facilitate and inform discussions on strengthening the science-policy interface for chemicals and waste management and thus support and promote science-based local, national, regional and global action on sound management of chemicals and waste beyond 2020. It also aims to provide elements for bringing agendas together, and how science-policy platforms need to interact and inform each other.
The report reviews a variety of existing SPI platforms and discusses lessons learned from the development of the GCO-II. It examines the impacts of- and outputs from a strengthened SPI platform, including how such platforms can inform different stages of the policy-making process. The report discusses the institutional design of SPI platforms and outlines options for strengthening the science-policy interface. Following a brief description, each option is assessed according to their potential strengths, potential weaknesses, and potential implications, including budgetary considerations.
The options reviewed in the report:
- A | An independent platform
- B | Institutionalizing the Global Chemicals Outlook (GCO) and Global Waste Management Outlook (GWMO) processes
- C | Thematic subsidiary panels with specialized task forces
The Right to Science in the Context of Toxic Substances
The Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes (SR toxics) presented the report “The right to science in the context of toxic substances” (A/HRC/48/61 ) at the 48th session of the Human Rights Council, in September 2021.
- HRC48 Side Event | The right to science in the context of toxic substances
- Toxics exposure: ‘Follow the science’ to protect lives – UN expert | SR Toxics | 21 September 2021
- NGOs affirm the Right to Science is Critical for Protecting the Range of Human Rights | CIEL | 21 September 2021
- UN expert slams chemical industries for spreading fake news about risks | Michelle Langrand | Geneva Solutions | 22 September 2021
- PRTRs: the evidence base instrument for the right to know our environment? | PRTRs MOPP4 Side Event
Science in the Geneva Chemicals and Waste Cluster
Geneva is a global hub for chemicals and waste governance, with many UN and other international organizations at the forefront of the work to reduce environmental and health impacts of chemicals, waste and pollution. Geneva hosts the multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) related to chemicals and waste (the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions, as well as the Minatama Convention), all of which have dedicated science bodies providing relevant knowledge and assessments in their areas. Other major organizations in Geneva active in the production and sharing of knowledge on chemicals, waste and pollution include the World Health Organization, the UNEP Chemicals and Health Branch, the International Labour Organizations, the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, among others.
Past GEN Events
The Invisible Global Crisis: Exceeding the Limits of the Pollution Planetary Boundary – New Science and Opportunities to Tackle Threats to Human and Marine Life
UN Ocean Conference Side Event | International Pollutants Elimination Network, University of Gothenburg, Swedish Institute for Marine Environment, Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association, Geneva Environment Network | 27 June 2022
On the Road To UNEA 5.2 | Establishing a Science-Policy Panel (SPP) for Chemicals, Waste and Pollution
Albania, Mali, North-Macedonia, Switzerland, Uruguay, UNEP Chemicals and Health Branch, Geneva Environment Network | 14 December 2021