Ministers sign POPs, heavy metals, protocols

European agreement will influence global negotiations on POPs, say politicians

Environment ministers from 33 European countries, Canada, the USA and the EU today signed two protocols designed to control and reduce risks from persistent and organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals. At the fourth pan-European conference of environment ministers currently taking place in Århus, Denmark, ministers formally adopted the two protocols which come under the auspices of the UN/ECE Convention on long-range transboundary air pollution.

The treaty texts were finalised at negotiations in Geneva earlier this year (ENDS Daily 16 February). Under the POPs protocol, signatory countries agree to a mixture of bans, phase-outs and restricted use for sixteen different substances. Under the heavy metals agreement they commit to reduce emissions of lead, mercury and cadmium to below 1990 levels by the time the protocol enters into force, for which ratification by 16 countries is required.

Today, the POPs protocol was hailed by ministers as having a potentially strong impact on negotiations for a global POPs treaty, which are due to begin next week in Canada under the auspices of the UN Environment Programme. UK environment minister Michael Meacher referred to the protocol as "an important precursor" to a global agreement. Luxembourg environment minister Johny Lahure said "a strong regional message" of commitment had been sent.

However, Swedish environment minister Anna Lindh stressed the need for a "new approach" to the risk assessment of chemicals. In particular, she urged other countries to consider targeting groups of chemicals rather than individual substances, as has recently been proposed by the government in Sweden (ENDS Daily 15 May). Sweden has voiced similar concerns over the efficiency of current EU legislation for assessing chemicals (ENDS Daily 27 April).

The EU today issued a statement concerning the POPs protocol, in which it stresses the need for pentachlorophenol (PCP), signified by the protocol as an "area of research", to be "tightly controlled". The EU "urges" other parties to the protocol to adopt controls similar to those in place in the European Community.

Meanwhile, environmental groups have criticised the POPs protocol, saying that the requirement for "reduced use" is not strong enough and claiming that the convention's consensus character means it will be "slow and difficult" to add new substances to the protocol.

Alongside the heavy metals protocol, 30 countries today agreed an international strategy to phase out the use of leaded petrol by 2005. Though leaded petrol use in most EU countries has fallen dramatically over the last ten years, some 35% of petrol sold across Europe still contains lead. The strategy also sets a target for no petrol to contain more than 0.15 grams per litre of lead by 2000 and for 80% of all petrol to be unleaded by 2002.

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Århus conference

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