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No consensus on atmospheric mercury emissions at UN negotiations

Wednesday November 9, 2011 – Ottawa, Canada – The Intergovernmental Negotiations Committee (INC) under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) met in Nairobi last week (October 31st to Nov 4th) to discuss the development of a legally-binding agreement on mercury. This meeting was the third meeting of the INC. Negotiations started in 2010, and are projected to finish in 2013.

The international efforts to reduce mercury levels in the environment were prompted due to increasing levels of the toxic element in the environment that adversely affect humans and wildlife. Although mercury occurs naturally, recent studies suggest that on average over 90% of the mercury present in the Arctic today originated from anthropogenic sources. Currently, the biggest mercury emissions stem from coal-based energy consumption in rapidly growing economies, particularly in Asia. Because these emissions then undergo long-range transport and are deposited in far-away places such as the Arctic, a global treaty is needed to control this transboundary source.

Inorganic forms of mercury that are emitted by coal-fired power plants are transformed into the very toxic organic methylmercury, which then accumulates in aquatic and marine food-webs. Highest methylmercury concentrations are being found in the top of the food-web, for example in marine mammals such as toothed whales and polar bears. Inuit are disproportionally affected by mercury pollution because these animals are an important part of their traditional diet. The Nunavik Health Board issued a consumption advisory in October this year, and recommends that women of childbearing age reduce beluga meat intake due to observed health effects of mercury in prenatally exposed children.

“Beluga meat is an important part of the traditional diet of Inuit.” Duane Smith, ICC Canada’sPresident, said. “It provides important nutrients and strength to our people, and has greatcultural importance. Mercury in our traditional diet affects our food security and our health. This needs to be brought to the attention of international policy makers – in particular to governments in the source regions of mercury emissions.”

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) has therefore been represented throughout the mercury negotiations, and brought the Inuit concerns to the attention of the global community. At INC-3, ICC Canada represented Inuit as part of the Canadian delegation, with funding support from the Northern Contaminants Program of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC). ICC Greenland also participated as an independent observer, and gave an intervention on the importance of mandatory regulations for atmospheric mercury emissions for Inuit.


Parnuna Egede from ICC Greenland gives an intervention during INC-3, explaining the impact of atmospheric mercury emissions on Inuit in the Arctic.

Delegations worked hard throughout the week to achieve consensus on text elements of a mercury treaty, but remained extremely divided on the most important issues such as the regulation of atmospheric mercury emissions. Interventions from Sweden (for Arctic Council) and Canada highlighted that the Arctic is disproportionally affected by atmospheric mercury emissions, and emphasized the importance of urgent action. Particularly India and China pointed to their need for rising energy consumption to fuel their fast growing economies, and refused to agree to any text that would result in a mandatory commitment to regulate mercury emissions.

The plenary at INC-3 hears an intervention from Anne Daniel, Canadian delegation.

“We are very disappointed with the lack of progress on commitments for regulating atmospheric emissions so far”, said Parnuna Egede, ICC Greenland. “Some countries specificallypointed out that if they have to choose between providing energy for their people and worrying about other people having to change their traditional diet, they will select energy for their people.


They don’t seem to understand that their own population will suffer the same health effects from mercury that Inuit do. To provide energy and reduce mercury emissions at the same timedoes not have to be mutually exclusive.”

“It is encouraging to see countries such as Canada and Sweden pressing the importance of theArctic as a sensitive area for mercury pollution.” Duane Smith said. “There is a lot of work to do to convince governments such as India and China to take serious action to cut their mercury emissions. Without their commitment to reduce emissions, we will not see any decreases of mercury in the Arctic environment, and the health of our people and millions of people all over the globe will be compromised. We can only hope that the next negotiation meeting will be more successful.”

The next INC will take place June 25 – 29, 2012 in Punta del Este, Uruguay.

Carole Simon, ICC Canada
Tel: + 1 613 563 2642
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The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) is an Indigenous Peoples’ Organization (IPO), founded in 1977 to promote and celebrate the unity of 180,000 Inuit from Alaska (USA), Canada, Greenland, and Chukotka (Russia). ICC works to promote Inuit rights, safeguard the Arctic environment, and protect and promote the Inuit way of life. In regard to climate change, we believe that it is crucial for world leaders and governments to recognize, respect and fully implement the human rights of Inuit and all other Indigenous peoples across the globe.