International Chemicals Management

International chemicals management aims to achieve the sustainable use of chemicals worldwideClick to enlarge
International chemicals management aims to achieve the sustainable use of chemicals worldwide
Source: metamorworks / Adobe Stock

When it comes to managing chemicals, the primary concern is to minimise negative environmental and health impacts and conserve resources while maximising the benefits of using chemicals for sustainable development. To achieve this goal, a wide range of stakeholders must work together internationally and make concerted use of effective tools for global chemicals management.

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Beyond 2020 - a crucial phase for chemicals management worldwide

Global Chemicals Outlook: Sustainable development needed - "business as usual is not an option"

Global trends show increasing production and use volumes of more and more chemicals in increasingly diverse applications and products. As a result, the requirements for responsible chemicals management are growing worldwide. At the same time, new chemical industrial sites and rapidly growing consumer markets are developing outside existing industrial regions.

In 2002, the so-called “2020 goal” for chemicals management was agreed at the World Summit in Johannesburg. In essence, it states that - by 2020 - significant adverse effects on human health and the environment should be minimised worldwide when handling chemicals throughout all phases of their life cycle. This has not been achieved by the 2020 target year. This was explicitly confirmed by the Global Chemicals Outlook II (GCO II) of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in April 2019.

Countries and stakeholders decide on the future international chemicals and waste management at the Fifth World Chemicals Conference (International Conference on Chemicals Management - ICCM5). ICCM5 takes place in Bonn from 25 - 29 September 2023 under German presidency. The conference must set the course for achieving the 2020 goal more effectively and consistently than before, while integrating it even more closely with sustainable development. Organized by the BMUV, the second Berlin Forum on 4 - 5 September 2023 promoted again the necessary political attention at the highest level.


Using, disseminating and further developing proven instruments

Despite progress in many areas, the Federal Environment Agency believes that considerably stronger determination and more consistent alignment of all actors towards this overarching common goal are urgently needed. In many places, appropriate chemical management institutions and tools have yet to be put in place. Best practices need to be continuously disseminated and developed worldwide in order to move closer to the 2020 goal globally while advancing the other goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Important already existing building blocks and principles for this include:

  • The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management SAICM: although the mandate has to be renewed since 2020, SAICM’s unique multi-sector and multi-stakeholder orientation remains important for a follow-up "beyond 2020" framework;
  • Internationally binding regulatory frameworks such as the Basel (on hazardous waste), Rotterdam (on information on exported hazardous substances), Stockholm (on persistent organic pollutants POPs), and Minamata (on mercury) conventions;
  • Internationally accepted tools, primarily developed and provided significantly by the OECD and its members, for testing, evaluation and management of chemicals. Outside the OECD members’ realm, the IOMC in particular offers comprehensive support for emerging and developing countries. A key basis for any chemicals management is the Globally Harmonised System GHS which was developed at UN level;
  • Important regional regulations such as the European regulations on chemicals (REACH), pesticides or biocides.

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 with a view to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which the global community developed in the follow-up process to the Rio Summit and adopted in September 2015 as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. SDG sub-goal 12.4 envisages achieving environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle by 2020 and significantly reducing their release to air, water and soil.

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. On the other hand, business as usual - according to GCO II this is not an option! - will result in such high costs for society that a transformation is becoming even more urgent also for this reason.

With regard to SDG 17 ("Partnerships to achieve the goals"), it is noteworthy that transparency and cooperation among 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 of an internationally networked and particularly dialogue-oriented institution in 2017 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 Federal Environment Agency

The International Chemicals Management section (IV 1.1) of the German Federal Environment Agency acts as the German National Focal Point 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 BMUV.

When it comes to the production and use of chemicals, the question that ultimately always needs to be answered is what overall societal benefit and harm this entails. Policymakers need to weigh up the economic, social and environmental arguments when making decisions on suitable - i.e. effective in terms of the above-mentioned objectives and as efficient as possible – measures for sound chemicals management. Strict legislation can be just as important as economic steering 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 consequences.


More up-to-date information

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is a Canadian research institute that has been working on sustainable development worldwide for over 30 years. As a non-profit organisation, it receives financial support from various governments, some United Nation’s institutions, foundations and from the private sector, including the BMUV. Since 2016, IISD has been running the "SDG Knowledge Hub" - an online resource centre with news on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) provides independent and timely reporting on United Nation’s negotiations on environment and development and is also an IISD project. Current information on chemicals and waste can be found on ENB's specific topic page.

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