International chemicals management

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The Global Chemicals Outlook II has found that global chemicals production will double compared to 2017. At the same time, several million tonnes of chemicals enter the environment every year. This happens at different points along the value chain, from raw material extraction to production and processing through to consumption and disposal. According to estimates of the World Health Organization (WHO) the unsound management of chemicals led to at least 1.6 million deaths worldwide and 45 million lost disability-adjusted life years in 2016 alone. In 2015, almost one million workers died from the effects of exposure to hazardous chemicals. The real figures might well be much higher as these figures only relate to cases regarding the few, select chemicals where there is proof of a causal connection. Impoverished people, in particular, are disproportionately affected by chemical contamination and its impacts.

At the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, it was agreed that chemicals should be used and produced in ways that lead to the minimisation of significant adverse effects on human health and the environment (WSSD 2020 Goal). That is why the German government is continuously working at multilateral level for global, sustainable chemicals management and the improvement of information exchange and capacity-building, also in developing and newly industrialised countries.

The first International Conference on Chemicals Management that took place in 2006 in Dubai adopted the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) to enable international cooperation on cross-cutting issues of chemical safety under the umbrella of the United Nations. SAICM is a cross-sectoral, multi-stakeholder policy framework for chemicals management with non-binding character under international law. It supplements internationally binding agreements in the fields of chemicals and waste such as the Rotterdam, Stockholm and Minamata Conventions as well as the Montreal Protocol, which together only regulate a comparatively small number of substances, and the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. SAICM closes the remaining regulatory gaps of the binding agreements. In doing so, it focusses on two core elements: the global establishment of chemicals control systems integrated in government institutions and responsible handling of issues of concern that fall outside of internationally binding rules such as pharmaceuticals in the environment, hazardous pesticides in agriculture or e-waste. The aim of this voluntary programme is to minimise the adverse impacts of chemicals on human health and the environment.

The SAICM Secretariat is hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which closely cooperates with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other UN organisations associated within the Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC).

At the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York, the WSSD 2020 Goal was incorporated in extended form in the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda as target 12.4. The target states that by 2020, the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle should be achieved, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and their release to air, water and soil should be significantly reduced in order to minimise their adverse impacts on human health and the environment.

With the 2030 Agenda, the member states of the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets to pave the way for sustainable development in harmony with economic, social and ecological dimensions. Several goals focus on the extensive protection of human health from adverse environmental impacts. There is hardly any SDG under the 2030 Agenda that can be achieved without sound management of chemicals and waste. The importance of SAICM for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda becomes particularly clear in goal 3.9. The number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution must be substantially reduced by 2030.

The necessary level of protection is only possible when all countries set, implement and sufficiently control regulations for sound management of chemicals. That is why a global and complete safety system is needed. It is the task of SAICM to ensure this globally.

International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM)

The International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM) is responsible for guiding and monitoring the SAICM process. As the decision-making body, ICCM takes decisions on the cooperation of all relevant stakeholders and sectors on cross-cutting issues of international chemicals safety and is comparable to the conference of the parties of other international environmental agreements. Even though it is a voluntary instrument, the majority of UN member states participates in the negotiations of the chemicals framework. The SAICM Secretariat has been set up at UN Environment in Geneva to support the practical implementation of the strategic approach.

SAICM beyond 2020

The SAICM objectives were not reached by the target year 2020. This was confirmed in April 2019 by the Global Chemicals Outlook II of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). SAICM’s mandate expired at the end of 2020. The fifth International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5) will decide on the future of international chemicals and waste management beyond 2020. Germany is the host and chair of this upcoming conference where delegates from politics, international and national organisations, business, science and civil society will negotiate and take decisions on the future chemicals policy in plenary meetings and working groups.

This is the last opportunity for the time being to change the framework of international chemicals management so that the goals of the 2030 Agenda will be achieved. The Intersessional Process (IP), a forum for discussing the possible structure of international chemicals management beyond 2020, will take place in the run-up to the 5th International Conference on Chemicals Management.

One formal and four informal rounds of negotiations (IP1-IP4) are at the core of the Intersessional Process. The negotiations also include regional sessions for coordination within the various UN regions and in sectors and stakeholder groups involved in SAICM.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the negotiations on international chemicals and waste management were affected by delays. The uncertain situation prompted the German government to postpone the conference, which was originally planned for October 2020. It will now be held from 25 to 29 September 2023 in the World Conference Center in Bonn. The extra time created by the delays was used for virtual events to support dialogue and advance the negotiations on international chemicals policy beyond 2020.

COVID-19 pandemic

The current COVID-19 pandemic is leading to major challenges in international cooperation. This has also affected the negotiations on international chemicals and waste management. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its uncertain medium- and long-term development, the German government decided to postpone ICCM5, originally scheduled for 5-9 October 2020 in Bonn. IP4, planned to be held in Bucharest in March 2020, was also cancelled. A new date has yet to be set.

ICCM5 President Gertrud Sahler from the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety remarked: "Currently, activities to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and protect the health of citizens are dominating the political agenda nationally and internationally. However, this does not mean that we can neglect other urgent global challenges. It is very likely that people who are already in poor health due to pollutant exposure are at higher risk in the case of a COVID-19 infection. We therefore face a greater challenge than ever to create the global conditions for sound management of chemicals and waste. According to the World Health Organization, almost 1.6 million people die every year from contamination by chemicals because of exposure to hazardous chemicals. This amounts to around 4,300 deaths daily. Our joint efforts made so far have not been sufficiently successful in reducing this figure. We will work hard to make the ongoing negotiation process a success and to reach an agreement on an ambitious framework that builds on the unique SAICM multi-stakeholder method."

The time gained from the postponement of ICCM5 should be used for further advancing the negotiations on international chemicals policy after 2020. For this purpose, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the SAICM Secretariat in cooperation with the ICCM5 Bureau are developing virtual formats to replace the formal negotiation process. This will maintain the dialogue and enable exchange of views on almost all relevant topics for decision-making by ICCM5, with the aim of achieving additional progress in the meantime.

Last updated: 13.03.2023

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