Learning Dynamism: Understanding the Stockholm Convention on POPs
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The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) is considered an example of success among multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs).

The Stockholm Convention is highlighted by a new e-course, created by InforMEA, a knowledge management initiative of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

By providing insights into the Convention, the e-course offers lessons for how to build a dynamic MEA capable of reflecting the concerns of parties as they change over time.

This policy update briefly considers how this e-course's focus on the Stockholm Convention can not only support implementation of the provisions of the Convention, but also inform other MEAs looking to achieve similar flexibility and success in their approach to global environmental governance.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) is considered an example of success among multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). The Stockholm Convention is highlighted by a new e-course, created by InforMEA, a knowledge management initiative of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). By providing insights into the Convention, the e-course offers lessons for how to build a dynamic MEA capable of reflecting the concerns of parties as they change over time. This policy update briefly considers how this e-course’s focus on the Stockholm Convention can not only support implementation of the provisions of the Convention, but also inform other MEAs looking to achieve similar flexibility and success in their approach to global environmental governance.

The Stockholm Convention regulates an often under-recognized group of chemicals. As the e-course explains in very accessible terms, POPs have four characteristics. They: remain intact for exceptionally long periods of time; become widely distributed throughout the environment; accumulate in the fatty tissue of living organisms, including humans; and are toxic to both humans and wildlife. As a result of these characteristics, POPs can travel far from their place of production or use, often ending up in remote regions such as the Arctic, affecting the region’s environment and inhabitants. Despite their local production and use, these chemicals represent a truly global problem, for which international action is warranted.

The international community responded to the need for global action on POPs with the Stockholm Convention. The e-course explains the general objectives and history of the Convention, including to “protect human health and the environment from POPs.” Meeting the objective of elimination entails supporting a transition to safer alternatives and promoting environmentally-sound disposal of stockpiles and equipment containing POPs.

Initially, the Stockholm Convention listed twelve POPs, often referred to as the “dirty dozen.” These pesticides, industrial chemicals and by-products, were largely considered “dead” chemicals, because they were, with the exception of DDT, not in active production or use. Over time, however, parties to the Stockholm Convention agreed to add eleven more chemicals, including some that were in production and use at the time.

The e-course highlights the Annexes of the Convention that detail how chemicals are governed by the Convention, and how new chemicals are considered for addition to the Convention. Annex A lists chemicals that are slated for elimination, while Annex B restricts the production and use of chemicals, and Annex C lists chemicals that are unintentionally released. For chemicals in Annex C, an expert group meets to identify ways to reduce or, if feasible, eliminate unintentional production. Yet, it is Annexes D through F, which address the characteristics of POPs and how to assess and manage the risks POPs pose, that provide the Stockholm Convention with its dynamic character.

Annexes D through F are the purview of the POPs Review Committee (POPRC), which, as the e-course outlines, reviews and recommends whether a chemical should be listed in the Convention. The POPRC reviews notifications of possible candidate POPs from parties according to the criteria listed in Annex D of the Convention. If a chemical passes this stage, the POPRC then develops a draft risk profile in accordance with Annex E, and, if the chemical still is deemed to warrant global action due to its POPs characteristics, a draft risk management evaluation is prepared at the Annex F stage. In this staged process, the POPRC identifies new POPs and their associated risks, as well as possible alternatives to the chemical. Through this process, the Stockholm Convention evolves to reflect the ongoing and new concerns of countries regarding chemicals of concern, and potential POPs.

The POPRC is comprised of scientific experts that are nominated by parties, but operate in their individual scientific capacity, as outlined by the e-course. As the POPRC moves toward considering chemicals currently in production and use, the scientific integrity and nature of the POPRC is more important than ever. Recently, some concerns that some members and observers of POPRC sought to blur the boundaries between science and politics have led to a greater emphasis on the need for sound, science-based decision making. Part of this emphasis has included improving understanding of the role of the POPRC to represent their scientific expertise rather than their countries’ national positions. [1] The role of POPRC to many is to provide this independent scientific review, leaving political consideration for the Conference of the Parties (COP). By clarifying the roles of the various subsidiary bodies, the e-course provides a useful initial primer to participants in the Stockholm Convention’s work.

Some of the political considerations necessary for the Stockholm Convention to meet its goals include the provision of technical and financial support to developing countries to assist them in eliminating stockpiles and POPs wastes, and switching to alternatives. The e-course outlines the provisions of the Convention regarding technical and financial assistance, including a financial mechanism to channel funding through the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

Another way of improving implementation of the Convention is through the synergies process. As the e-course describes, the synergies process involves greater cooperation between the Stockholm Convention, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal and the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. By improving coordination among these Conventions, countries could improve management over the lifecycle of production, trade and disposal of chemicals. Yet, bringing together these three Conventions is at times a complex task, involving reconciling slightly different provisions and goals within them. [2] The e-course’s useful history of this process can help participants appreciate the links among the Conventions and navigate the synergies process at the COPs and in implementation efforts.

The e-course’s accessible format aids understanding and can provide insights for those working to implement the Stockholm Convention or apply its lessons learned to other processes. These materials are useful for those seeking to understand how a dynamic Convention, like Stockholm, can evolve over time, with a regularized way to update its annexes, and overcome challenges. The e-course features these valuable examples, applicable to other conventions and the broader context of global environmental governance.

[1] IISD-RS Summary and Analysis of POPRC-11

[2] IISD-RS Summary and Analysis of the Conferences of the Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, May 2015

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