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Issued in 2013, the UN’s first Global Chemicals Outlook (GCO) was commissioned to inform governments and industry on trends in chemicals production, use and disposal, and offer policy advice aimed at meeting the goal – first adopted by governments at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 – to "use and produce chemicals in ways that do not lead to significant adverse effects on human health and the environment" by 2020.
In his foreword, the then UN Environment Programme (Unep) executive director Achim Steiner warned that human health and the environment were being compromised by the current arrangements for managing chemicals and hazardous wastes and that these concerns had taken on "a new level of urgency". Calling for a switch from a chemical-by-chemical approach to one that addressed all chemicals, the report said a global ‘sustainable chemicals convention’ could be the way to go. The report recommended that governments "regulate and reduce the use of chemicals of highest concern and substitute with safer alternatives". It argued that the chemical industry wasn’t faced with a binary choice between the economics associated with industrial development on the one hand, and the costs of regulation on the other, because the failure to manage chemicals safely can also impose large costs and, conversely, sound chemicals management can yield economic benefits in terms of reduced environmental and health risks.
Of course, long term economic benefits to society, such as lower healthcare or welfare costs, are not the same thing as immediate economic benefits to an industry, such as continuing the production of a hazardous chemical until the maximum return on investment for those chemical plants has been gained. And chemical companies, like those in other sectors, are under pressure to produce good returns for their investors, whether they be private companies or national governments.
But a restriction on particular chemicals is as much an opportunity for producers of alternatives as it is a threat to the producers of the restricted chemicals. And while chemical companies have taken a financial hit from the cost of REACH registrations and other regulatory requirements, they also stand to benefit from better knowledge about who their customers are and how they use their chemicals, and better data on the hazards and exposures associated with their substances.
The GCO raised the profile of chemicals management and was an invaluable reference for governments and businesses. But choosing and applying the best policy instruments to help governments, the chemical industry and its customers reduce the planet’s toxic footprint while, at the same time, sustaining strong economic growth was always going to be a marathon rather than a sprint.
So seven years after the GCO appeared, it is no surprise that the second edition says the 2020 goal will not be met and that "urgent action" is needed to reduce the health and environmental damage caused by chemicals. Furthermore, trend data suggests the predicted doubling of the chemicals market between 2017 and 2030 will increase chemical releases, exposures, concentrations and adverse health and environmental effects unless "gaps to manage chemicals worldwide are addressed".
Evidence of insufficient progress, it says, includes the fact that hazardous chemicals continue to pollute the environment in large quantities and are ubiquitous in ecosystems and people’s bodies. Citing the World Health Organization, it says 1.6 million people died because of exposure to a few selected chemicals in 2016 and a further 45 million had their life expectancy reduced.
Much pollution comes from sources other than the production and use of chemicals, such as coal, steel and cement plants and vehicle emissions. But a lot can be done regarding chemicals production and use. For example, as the GCO-II points out, some 120 countries have not implemented the UN Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of classification and labelling. And while the number of different substances in commerce grows rapidly and the proportion of chemicals production in developing and emerging economies shoots up, a big gap in chemicals management capacity, knowledge and funding remains between developed countries and the rest of the world.
Issues such as microplastics and PFAS pollution show that the developed world still cannot claim to be practising sound chemicals management. And rich countries should provide greater funding for capacity building in African, Caribbean and central Asian countries. But while such work is vital, it is bringing the new global giants up to speed fast that will make the biggest contribution to sound chemicals management at the global scale.
Here the biggest gains would be achieved if China and India improved the quality and use of safety data sheets and labels, and enforced emissions and safety standards for mines, chemical plants, downstream factories and transportation. They should also phase out production and use of the most hazardous chemicals.
China – the world’s biggest chemical producer – uses the GHS as the basis for its classification system and has key chemicals management laws. But despite the government closing down hundreds of plants that violated HSE laws, its chemical industry still suffers accidents with many fatalities and enforcement remains patchy. It is the world’s biggest producer of cadmium, lead and the highly persistent fluorochemical PFOA, and one of the few countries that still produces asbestos and mercury.
India, meanwhile, has yet to create a national chemicals inventory, adopt the GHS or introduce substance registration requirements. Seven years after it first published a draft national chemicals policy, we are still waiting for the final version.
Although the GCOs have provided valuable evidence that action is needed, it is not Unep or a voluntary chemicals programme like Saicm that will transform China or India’s record. Instead it will be engagement and assistance from business organisations and major trading countries, and pressure from consumers and the media. Hopefully similar pressures will persuade Brazil’s government to reverse its decision to scrap the proposed industrial chemicals bill.
Let’s be clear that rich countries are not absolved of responsibility here and can also reap market opportunities by developing safer chemicals and technology that can reduce exposure to toxic substances and help make more circular economies a reality.
In particular trade bodies like Cefic and the ACC should support calls for UN policy framework Saicm’s successor to have powers to set priorities and direct governments to take action to achieve them, rather than just highlighting issues and raising awareness.
The GCO-II’s "key messages" are a common sense wish list but, like those in its predecessor, no deadlines are included. Many of the recommendations are vague, if applaudable, aspirations rather than Smart objectives. Bowing to today’s geopolitical forces, it doesn’t repeat the call for a chemicals convention.
But some of its recommendations are clear and practicable and will gain traction. For example, the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) and Unep have submitted proposals to Saicm for a free access database of assessed and classified chemicals in commerce to be used by governments and businesses around the globe – something that would be invaluable to developing and emerging economy countries.
It will be a big achievement if Unep’s international conference on chemicals management next year in Bonn agrees a fleshed out definition of ‘sound chemicals management’ and adopts a framework with clear, measurable and achievable targets assigned to specific stakeholders. But if the third GCO is to report major progress the key battles will have been won elsewhere.