For the German Environment Agency, the main aim of chemicals management is to minimise negative effects on our environment and health, conserve resources and, at the same time, maximise the use of chemical applications for sustainable development within planetary boundaries. However, we will only be able to achieve this allegedly straightforward objective if a large number of actors and instruments work effectively and in concert to that end.
Beyond 2020 – a decisive phase for chemicals management worldwide
Global Chemicals Outlook: The transformation of legacy pollution into innovative solutions for sustainable development is in demand
Global trends show the increasing production and burgeoning use of an ever-wider range of chemicals in increasingly diverse applications and products. As a result, the requirements to which sound chemicals management is subject are also proliferating across the globe. At the same time, new priorities for the chemical industry and rapidly growing consumer markets are developing beyond the confines of existing industrial regions. The Global Chemicals Outlook 2 of the UN Environment Programme shows clearly what this means.
This is one of several good reasons why the coming years are set to be such a decisive phase. What became known as the “2020 goal” for chemicals management was agreed at the World Summit in Johannesburg in 2002. Since then, it has been confirmed and reiterated on multiple occasions by various international bodies. It essentially states that, when dealing with chemicals in all the stages of their life cycles, harmful effects on human health and the environment need to be minimised globally by 2020. The intention is for the fifth session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM5), to be held in Bonn in 2021 under German presidency, to set – albeit Covid19-caused postponement – the course to achieving this goal more effectively and consistently than has thus far been the case.
Using, disseminating and developing proven instruments
Despite the progress made in many areas, the German Environment Agency considers much greater determination and the more consistent alignment of all actors with this overarching common goal to be urgently necessary. In many places, appropriate chemicals management institutions and tools have yet to be put in place. Best practices need to be continuously disseminated and developed across the globe to safeguard what has already been achieved and move the whole world closer to the 2020 goal, while also achieving the other goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Important existing building blocks and principles which have already been formally agreed at various levels but not yet implemented everywhere broadly and thoroughly enough are:
- The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management SAICM, whose current mandate ends in 2020 but whose unique multi-sector and multi-stakeholder orientation remains important for a follow-up platform beyond 2020;
- Rules of international law such as the Basel Convention (on hazardous waste), the Rotterdam Convention (for information on exported hazardous substances), the Stockholm Convention (on persistent organic pollutants or POP) and the Minamata Convention (on mercury);
- Internationally accepted tools, primarily developed and provided by the OECD and its members, for testing, evaluating and managing chemicals. Outside the OECD members’ realm, the IOMC in particular offers comprehensive support to emerging and developing countries. A key basis for any chemical management is the Globally Harmonized System, or GHS, which was developed at UN level;
- Important regional regulations such as the European Regulations on Chemicals (REACH), pesticides or biocides, together with many other, in some cases national, statutory requirements.
More consistent promotion of sustainable development in and with chemicals management
The German Environment Agency believes much greater efforts are required to achieve the 2020 goal. If all measures in chemical management - including those which have been named and those which have not, those which are binding and the many voluntary measures - are to be consistently aligned with one another, a comprehensive concept for sustainable chemistry must provide long-term, reliable specialist guidance for the actions in the chemical sector of companies, civil society and government. This overarching approach requires a broad understanding between all actors and stakeholders in respect of a wide range of specific aspects and appropriate indicators. This also applies, for example, in the context of the development of a functioning and “non-toxic” circular economy, for which our consumption patterns and use of resources must be reorganised.
This becomes even clearer when one considers the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), which the world community developed in the wake of the Rio Summit and were adopted in September 2015 as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. On the one hand, SDG sub-target 12.4 reiterates the well-known 2020 goal: The achievement by 2020 of the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all waste throughout their life cycles in accordance with agreed international frameworks and a significant reduction of their release into air, water and soil to reduce their adverse effects on human health and the environment. In addition, it is clear from the 2030 Agenda that the importance of chemicals management for sustainable development as a whole can hardly be overstated. After all, many solutions depend on essential contributions from the chemical sector, for example in the fight against poverty, hunger and climate change, to safeguard health, hygiene, nutrition, clean water, clean energy, and for many other societal needs and challenges. If the chemical sector and chemicals management can be comprehensively guided by an overarching concept of sustainable chemistry, these solutions will also respect the planetary boundaries and thus make a decisive contribution to sustainable development.
With regard to SDG 17 (global partnerships), it is noteworthy that transparency and cooperation between stakeholders are often crucial to finding effective solutions. Such cooperative approaches are essential elements both of the SAICM Strategic Approach and the practical implementation of a comprehensive concept for sustainable chemistry. A key German initiative and contribution was the creation in 2017 of an internationally networked and particularly dialogue-oriented institution in the form of the independent International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre, ISC3, whose purpose, with precisely this idea in mind, is to promote and disseminate Sustainable Chemistry worldwide.
The role of the German Environment Agency
The “International Chemicals Management” section (IV 1.1) of the German Environment Agency also acts as a National Focal Point in Germany for SAICM and the Stockholm and Minamata Conventions. It addresses the need outlined above for work and development with its own work and a number of projects of the Environmental Department Research Plan that are being carried out in close cooperation with numerous specialist units from across the agency and the German Ministry for the Environment.
When it comes to the production and use of chemicals, the question which must always be answered is that of the benefits and hazards these may present for society as a whole. Policymakers need to weigh up the economic, social and environmental arguments when making decisions on appropriate measures - i.e. those which, in a manner consistent with the afore-mentioned objectives, are both effective and as efficient as possible - for sound chemicals management. Strict legislation can be just as important as economic governance instruments or voluntary programmes. Careful design, adequate resources for implementation and the effective interaction of all measures are all crucial here. As a partner in this interaction, the German Environment Agency is particularly responsible for implementing scientific methods to determine ecological limits and appropriate protective measures. Where the ecological or planetary limits are still unclear, we identify safety fences consistent with the precautionary principle and the best of the available knowledge whose aim is to protect us from exceeding these limits with fatal consequenc