Building a shared future for all life

by the Executive Secretary of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, Rolph Payet, and the Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema

“There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example – where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”

(Rachel Carson, The Silent Spring, 1962)

Sixty years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s book, pollution remains one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss. However, several multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) have helped to prevent damage on a larger scale. A study commissioned by the Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm, and Minamata Conventions on how, through regulation and sound management of chemicals and waste, these agreements have contributed to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and the services provided by ecosystems highlights just that!

The effects of the exposure of hazardous chemicals and wastes on biodiversity has been extensively documented for animal species - resident, sedentary and migratory - in air, land and water bodies. The non-exhaustive list of impacts includes the decline of bees and other pollinators; reproduction in migratory species of animals by hazardous pesticides, and the physiological, behavioral and reproductive impacts on many fish and other species of wildlife affected by bioaccumulation of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Other effects include the adulteration of the aquatic biota, including aquatic vascular plants, seagrasses, algae and other water plants; fish, crabs and mussels; and the population declines of Baltic seals, bottle-nosed and striped dolphins and killer whales. All these are associated with exposure to hazardous chemicals and wastes, including POPs. And more than 800 marine and coastal species are impacted by plastic pollution through ingestion, entanglement, ghost fishing and dispersal by rafting, as well as by the effects of plastic pollution on their habitats. Unfortunately, less is known about the effects of microplastics and nanoplastics, although nanoplastics have been observed to enter the cells of organisms.

Having listened to the science, the international community rose to the challenge and adopted four binding MEAs to protect human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals and wastes. These are: the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal; the 1998 Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade; the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs); and the 2013 Minamata Convention on Mercury. In addition, the non-binding Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) aimed at a goal of achieving by 2020 the sound management of chemicals throughout their life cycle, by focusing on important chemicals and waste issues not covered by the above MEAs or the Montreal Protocol on Ozone-Depleting Substances. That agreement is now in the process of being updated. Furthermore, the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) with its three objectives of ensuring the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources, will not be fully attained without its effective contribution to the goals of the above binding and non-binding instruments.

Progress has been made as a result of the implementation of these agreements, for example, primary emissions of legacy POPs listed in the Annexes A, B and C to the Stockholm Convention are declining. The concentrations measured in air and in human populations have declined and continue to decline or remain at low levels. Concentrations of brominated diphenyl ethers (BDEs) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS)are beginning to show decreases even though in a few instances, increases and/or stable levels are observed. Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) best known for its egg-shell thinning among birds, especially birds of prey, has been restricted to use for disease vector control only.

Under the Basel Convention, Parties have been supported to minimize the generation of toxic wastes; manage the waste covered under the Convention generated in an environmentally sound manner; and minimize transboundary movements of wastes, in particular to avoid trade that involves movements of wastes to countries unable to manage them or that do not agree to receive such imports. Under the Rotterdam Convention, Parties have been provided with information to enable informed decision-making on the import of hazardous pesticides and industrial chemicals that, among others, impact on biodiversity. Under the Minamata Convention, Parties have been supported to reduce or eliminate their anthropogenic emissions of mercury, including in the Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining Sector (ASGM) which are the single biggest source of mercury releases to soil and often take place in biodiverse and sensitive ecosystems around the world. Finally, under the CBD, despite the increasing efforts that have been generated by the Convention to improve the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, nutrient levels and the impacts of pesticides continue to be detrimental to ecosystem function and biodiversity. While the use of fertilizers and pesticides has stabilized globally over the last decade, it remains at unsustainably high levels.

Nonetheless, despite these and other collective efforts, there is still much to do, with pollution and poor management of chemicals and waste continuing to have adverse effects on human health and the environment. Moreover, some groups, including indigenous peoples and local communities, women, children, and people living in vulnerable situations, are disproportionately affected. So, have the targets and objectives set out in these international frameworks been unrealistic? Has the international community lacked appropriate and adequate data to take more ambitious decisions? How do we ensure that by 2030 pollution stops driving the loss of biodiversity?

In Rachel Carson’s book, the final chapter entitled “The Other Road” describes a decisive moment where two roads diverge: “The road we have long been travelling (…), a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road – the one ‘less travelled by’ – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth”. The ‘less travelled’ road was described as the one where people had asserted their right to know, and having decided that humanity should not take “senseless and frightening risks” had decided to invest in alternatives to chemicals for insect control. By mapping the interlinkages between chemicals and wastes management and biological diversity we hope this exploratory study encourages the international community to take a ‘less traveled road’. One that will lead us to the protection of the environment and biodiversity for the present and future generations through the certainty that environmental challenges and their solutions are inter-related, complex and shared. This exploratory study can provide a baseline for future work and collaboration between conventions in different spheres and within them.

To achieve the World’s 2050 vision of “living in harmony with nature”, the post-2020 global biodiversity framework will need to be embraced by all governments, stakeholders, international organizations and related multilateral environmental agreements. The significant ongoing contributions of the Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Minamata conventions need to be fully harnessed. In particular, work under these conventions will be important to achieve the framework’s proposed target on pollution, aimed at reducing nutrients lost to the environment, pesticides and eliminating the discharge of plastic waste.

Conversely, knowledge and insights garnered through collaboration with the CBD and its Protocols is complementary to the work of the four global chemical and waste conventions. Only through collaborative approaches will we be able to reshape our relationship with nature and ensure that we deliver on the promise of a healthy and prosperous world for all for the current and future generations.