Delegates convened for the first time to begin deliberations on the establishment of a science-policy panel to contribute further to the sound management of chemicals and waste and to prevent pollution. Discussions focused on a timetable and organization of work for the Open-ended Working Group (OEWG), and on preparation of proposals for establishing a science-policy panel (SPP).

While addressing chemicals, waste, and pollution has been on the UN Environment Assembly’s (UNEA) agenda for some time, discussions on a science-policy interface (SPI) only began in 2018, based on the recognition of the need to ensure policymaking in this sector is backed by sound science. This led to UNEA-5’s adoption of a resolution earlier in 2022, which established a process to discuss proposals for an SPP on chemicals, wastes, and pollution.

To kickstart the process, the first segment of the first session of the ad hoc Open-ended Working Group on an SPP to Contribute Further to the Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste and to Prevent Pollution (OEWG 1.1) gave countries the opportunity to provide input on how the process should proceed and on initial aspects of the potential SPP’s form.

During the discussions, participants underscored: the need for a flexible, “lean” SPP that is policy relevant, not policy prescriptive; and the opportunity to leverage the experience of similar SPPs when discussing function, scope, and form. The group generally agreed that three meetings of the OEWG scheduled for 2023-2024 would be sufficient, with an intergovernmental meeting after that to consider the SPP proposal developed by the OEWG. They also debated whether a stepwise approach or parallel approach to addressing issues of function, scope, and form would be best, expressed concern about costs, and looked at how the OEWG could be run more efficiently.

During general statements, countries supported an SPP that learns from the experiences of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to avoid “reinventing the wheel.” The UK noted the panel can strengthen interactions with biodiversity and climate change through engagement with the IPCC and IPBES. Brazil suggested the SPP bridge both gaps in scientific research and capacity gaps in developing countries, as well as developing effective communication channels to share findings with as broad an audience as possible. France encouraged working in close collaboration with relevant bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Plastics Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), and announced EUR 150,000 in 2022 for the SPP process. Malawi said the SPP should contribute to enhancing the safety of workers.

Interventions by other stakeholders conveyed that, among others:

  • sound and independent science should be based on the precautionary principle;
  • the SPP should support and consider girls and young women, as they are “on the frontlines of the crisis”;
  • armed conflicts generate pollution and can create unchecked pollution practices;
  • the SPP can contribute to encouraging research into the health and ecological effects of conflict pollution and should address conflict pollution and the toxic remnants of war;
  • affordable policy solutions to tackle air pollution are often lacking; and
  • the SPP should not be undermined by economic and commercial interests, and conflicts of interest should be avoided.

On preparing proposals for establishing an SPP, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)/OEWG Secretariat said common understandings of chemicals, waste, and pollution are crucial as they will inform the functions and scope of the work that the SPP will be undertaking. Brazil urged support for the conduct of science by developing country experts as this will contribute to the legitimacy and efficacy of the panel. China suggested that a future SPP may need to establish a subsidiary panel to have dedicated work on different topics.

A non-governmental organization (NGO) called for developing targeted processes early on to engage the most affected communities, said they must be “specifically invited” to engage with the panel, and suggested the OEWG look to IPBES and IPCC on how to engage children and youth.

While the Secretariat forwarded a proposed that aspects of form could be considered in parallel to function, such as some aspects of the SPP’s rules of procedure, there was general agreement on a stepwise approach whereby scope and function of the SPP should be addressed first, while the form, policies, and procedures should be dealt with second. The Secretariat said large proportions of the rules of procedure from other bodies can be “rubber stamped” so issues such as horizon scanning can be properly addressed. No conclusion was reached on this issue.

OEWG 1.1 met in a fully hybrid format, in Nairobi, Kenya, and online, on 6 October 2022. OEWG 1.2 will meet from 30 January to 4 February 2023 in Bangkok, Thailand. OEWG 2 will take place later in 2023. OEWG 3 will convene in 2024. The intergovernmental meeting to adopt the SPP is tentatively scheduled for late 2024 – early 2025. [ENB Coverage of OEWG 1.1]