The year 2023 was a landmark one for the global governance of chemicals and waste, with negotiations on a science-policy panel for sound chemical management and talks on an instrument to end plastic pollution both making headway. September marked a critical moment as well, as policymakers adopted a new global framework for the safe and sustainable management of chemicals and waste, which experts say will complement global goals to achieve sustainable developmentstop biodiversity loss, and curb plastic pollution.

The Global Framework on Chemicals (GFC) is a successor to the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which has helped guide the use of chemicals for the last 15 years.

Adopted at the Fifth International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5) in Bonn, Germany, this September, the new framework’s five objectives and 28 targets will help scale up solutions to prevent pollution, strengthen capacity building, and create stronger linkages across diverse sectors.

As the year draws to a close, we sat down with Ludovic Bernaudat, Head of the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Knowledge and Risk Unit dealing with Chemicals and Waste, to reflect on this milestone agreement and what it means for those working on chemicals and waste management on the ground.

Which outcomes of the International Conference on Chemicals Management will have the biggest impact on advancing the sound management of chemicals and waste?

Ludovic Bernaudat (LB): The International Conference on Chemicals Management produced three important outcomes. First, the conference adopted the GFC. Like the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, the GFC’s unique multi-stakeholder approach enables governments to work alongside intergovernmental and civil society organizations, the private sector, and other stakeholders on the ground to support chemicals action. Second, the conference adopted a high-level declaration that provides a political push to guide its implementation. And third, it agreed to a new support mechanism that will enable the framework’s implementation. Germany and France already made pledges at the meeting.

What does the GFC mean for governments and stakeholders from industry and civil society?

LB: Now that the framework has been negotiated, we, the stakeholders, all need to start working towards the targets. To achieve them, strategic thinking and efficient programming is essential. Under the new framework, governments, international organizations, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will all be accountable for achieving results.

Experts recognize the importance of traditional knowledge in solving the triple planetary crisis. Does the new framework provide a role for traditional knowledge?

LB: Absolutely. In many of our programmes, the change in manufacturing practices requires going back to traditional ways of doing things – for example, using waste from one industry as an input to another rather than creating synthetic material. Traditional knowledge, which survived for tens of thousands of years before chemicals were used and produced extensively but has recently been forgotten, can provide roadmaps for introducing alternatives to some of the chemicals we produce and use.

Any agreement is only as good as its implementation. How can the GFC help developing nations with chemical and waste pollution challenges?

LB: The GFC provides objectives and finance arrangements that can enable a planet free of harm from chemicals and waste. It will soon have mechanisms to periodically monitor global progress. Lessons learned have been used to shape action. Implementation is everyone’s responsibility – from governments to the private sector to financial institutions to the general public.

Young people increasingly engage in these issues, as evidenced by the first-ever youth declaration on chemicals and waste issued at the International Conference on Chemicals Management. How important is that?

LB: Youth engagement is absolutely crucial. Young people have a stronger stake in this as they risk being exposed to hazardous impacts during their growth and for much longer than us. For example, our work with youth includes changing perceptions through science about skin color to eliminate the use of skin lightening products, which use dangerous chemicals as active ingredients.

How does the new framework build on the linkages with other Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) and processes?

LB: The framework is actively involved in the work on chemicals conducted under other MEAs. Legally binding treaties, such as the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions and the Montreal Protocol, include provisions on regulating, restricting, or banning chemicals.

Under a recently concluded project supported by the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, many countries made strides in addressing lead in paint and chemicals in products. How can the new framework support further action on lead in paint and chemical-intensive sectors such as electronics, construction, and textiles?

LB: The GFC will be a catalyst for action on these issues. We know from science that exposure to lead and other chemicals has long-term health impacts, especially in children. The new framework presents an integrated approach that encourages countries to adopt innovative chemicals and waste regulation. The GFC provides a platform to track how industry is finding green solutions and how entrepreneurs can be catalytic when offering sustainable solutions. It also considers the role of investors, banks, and foundations.  

This story has been developed in partnership with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) within the framework of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) project ID: 9771 on Global Best Practices on Emerging Chemical Policy Issues of Concern under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM). This project is funded by the GEF, implemented by UNEP, and executed by the SAICM Secretariat.