By: Kamala Kelkar
Coal-powered India, along with other countries, has successfully dodged its obligations to swiftly overhaul and regulate mercury emissions in the final draft of a United Nations treaty signed in Geneva earlier this month.
Instead of using greenest techniques at major mercury-emitting facilities, the countries have four other flexible options. India has 105 free-flowing, coal-fed power plants and production plants that emit mercury.
According to the UN, now the choices range from setting a quantified goal for controlling emissions wherever feasible to adopting alternative measures that has yet to be discovered.
The countries have 10 years after the treaty is ratified to implement whichever option they decide. The final draft of the global mercury-regulating contract was signed by 140 countries after four years of negotiations fostered by the United Nations Environment Programme. “We negotiated for control. On paper, we can’t be so harsh,” said Chief Engineer Alok Saxena of the Central Electricity Authority who attended the fifth and final negotiation.
India is considered the world’s second most mercury emitting country, next only to China because coal combustion supplies a majority of the grid and also releases mercury into the air. When the metal gets into the atmosphere, it is absorbed by water, plants and animals, exposing humans to potential nerve and brain damage as well as heart disease and other complications because of which the UNEP has targeted this element.
China, Indonesia and Chile, Saxena said, were among other countries that also pushed for broader emissions terms. The final draft will also dictate the supply and demand of mercury worldwide; its usage in lights and medical equipment, also monitoring mining and how it’s discarded.
Zero Mercury Working Group, a coalition of 95 NGOs around the world, praised the signing of the treaty, but slammed its weakened emission standards.
“Adoption of a global legal agreement on mercury is a major accomplishment,” said Michael T. Bender, co-coordinator of the group in a press release. “Yet the instrument is hampered by weak controls on mercury emissions.” But Saxena said that he was optimistic about India moving forward. “Give us 10 years,” he said. “We will prove that we are very serious.”
In October the UNEP will have a diplomatic conference in Japan, where the treaty is expected to be adopted but the text cannot be changed. At least 50 countries that have signed on to the treaty will then have to ratify their commitment before it becomes effective.