21 October 2013
Chemicals in the Context of Sustainable Development Goals
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The essential contribution made by chemicals to modern societies and economies may present a potential threat to sustainable development if chemicals are not managed soundly.

As an outcome of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20), the United Nations has launched a process to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This process should ultimately become part of a single global development agenda beyond 2015, building on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and with sustainable development at its core.

Chemicals and waste will be discussed in the SDG Open Working Group meeting in January 2014, under the topic of sustainable consumption and production. Although chemicals and waste are validly considered a cross-cutting issue, the challenge with this approach is that the substantive nature of the problem can become diluted. Chemicals are inextricably linked to our lives, present in almost every industry, from health, transportation, agriculture, construction, textile, and consumer products, just to name a few. In 2010, global chemical output was valued at US$4.12 trillion[1], making the chemical industry a major player in the global economy. However, the essential contribution made by chemicals to modern societies and economies may present a potential threat to sustainable development if chemicals are not managed soundly. More importantly, the costs of not taking action towards the sound management of chemicals is often higher than the costs of implementing measures to manage chemicals in ways that minimize adverse effects to human health and the environment.

The Global Chemicals Outlook (GCO)[2] explores a number of challenges related to chemicals, including: the increasing variety and complexity of chemicals; replacement of traditional plant, animal and/or ceramic-based products; and the increased length and intricacy of chemical supply chains and waste streams that expose serious gaps, lapses and inconsistencies in government and international policies and corporate practices. The GCO also presents evidence suggesting that the costs of inaction to a country due to the negative consequences of unsound chemicals management on human health and the environment often are significantly higher than the costs of action. Furthermore, the WHO[3] has estimated that chemical-induced disease contributes up to 25% of the Global Burden of Disease.

The link between sustainable development and sound chemicals management is clearly demonstrated by the experience with phasing out lead in gasoline. ‘The Global Benefits of Phasing out Leaded Fuel’ (December 2011) study, for example, confirmed that the phase-out of leaded petrol contributed US$2.4 trillion (4% global GDP) to the global economy. This monetary saving is calculated by measuring social benefits such as heightened IQ levels and reduced criminality, as well as health savings from afflictions such as cardiovascular disease. Ending the use of leaded petrol also translated to 1.2 million fewer deaths per year. In addition, it is expected that these health and associated financial savings may increase as connections between lead and additional health problems such as kidney disease become clearer.

Agreed to at the highest international political level in 2006, the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) supports achievement of a central goal agreed at the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development to ensure that, by 2020, chemicals are produced and used in ways that minimize significant adverse impacts on the environment and human health. The Dubai Declaration (2006) that gave birth to SAICM recognizes that the sound management of chemicals is critical to achieving sustainable development. SAICM, as a unique global initiative involving all the relevant sectors and stakeholders, has been touted as the overarching governing mechanism dealing with the complexity of chemical safety issues at the national, regional and global levels in the context of sustainable development. While the multilateral chemical-related conventions are contributors to sound chemicals management, they only cover specific chemicals and selected aspects of chemical safety.

SAICM recognizes the complexity of sound chemicals management and the adverse effects that various chemicals interactions can have on human health and the environment, and provides a multi-stakeholder forum for discussing these complex issues, identifying emerging issues, and finding feasible and attainable solutions to global problems. As the international community focuses on agreeing the SDGs that will drive the global sustainable development agenda, the platform provided under SAICM, including its 20 indicators of progress, becomes an important forum to discuss how to integrate the sound management of chemicals into the SDGs.

Looking ahead to 2020, chemicals production and consumption are increasing around the world. The relative shift of production from highly industrialized to developing countries, the rapid expansion of chemicals production and use in developing countries, and the economic implications of this increase under unsound chemicals management are global realities.

The UN’s post-2015 agenda will be critical to ensuring technical and financial resources are directed towards addressing the most basic chemical challenges that stakeholders currently face and to taking strategic action on these challenges. With only seven years remaining to reach the Strategic Approach 2020 goal of sound chemicals management, it is all the more imperative for concrete collaborative actions to turn aspirations into practical implementation and delivery on the ground. The fourth session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management, scheduled to convene in 2015, will take important decisions defining the chemicals and waste agenda for the five year period in the lead up to 2020, in particular through the ‘Overall Orientation and Guidance towards the SAICM 2020 Goal'[4]. These decisions could jump-start the implementation process on global goals for sound chemical management for the post-2015 period.

[1] Global Chemicals Outlook, United Nations Environment Programme, 2012

[2] Ibid, p.xv

[3] Available at: http://www.unep.org/transport/PCFV/PDF/Hatfield_Global_Benefits_Unleaded.pdf

[4] ICCM3 requested the SAICM secretariat to develop ‘Overall Orientation and Guidance towards the SAICM 2020 Goal’ under the guidance of the ICCM4 Bureau. The ‘Overall Orientation and Guidance’ will be action-oriented and focused on achievements to date, gaps and priority actions. Currently, a draft Consultation Framework Document is available for input from the SAICM regional meetings, other relevant meetings, an on-line consultation process and other informal discussions with stakeholders. The document is available at: http://www.saicm.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=461&Itemid=693

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