Illustration: Liu Rui
The third meeting of the United Nations Inter-government Negotiating Committee (INC3) on mercury kicked off in Kenya on Monday. A road map and concrete measures to control global mercury pollution will be discussed during this important week-long meeting.
China, with other world's major emitters of mercury, is under increasing pressure from other parties at the negotiations to agree to strong and binding commitments to reduce the levels of mercury ending up in the environment.
Coal combustion in China's thousands of coal-fired power stations is its largest source of mercury emissions. This is a worrying trend that is set to continue unless plans for aggressive energy efficiency and renewable energy plans are accelerated.
The UN discussions began in 2010 with the aim of creating a legally-binding global treaty to control mercury pollution by early 2013. These negotiations create opportunities for all nations, including China, to reduce their mercury emissions, and the associated health and environmental impacts. Strict limits on the production, use, emissions and waste management of mercury are being discussed.
As one of the most toxic of heavy metal pollutants, mercury is a neurotoxin leading to serious, and often permanent, brain and nervous system damage. It is known to persist and accumulate in the environment, which means that its effect can last well beyond when it is first emitted. The chronic Minamata disease in Japan, caused by mercury poisoning, affected thousands of children and adults from the 1950s until the government finally tackled the problem.
Mercury pollution in China is already a serious health concern. In the 1970s and 1980s, fishermen along the Songhua River in Northeast China were found to be suffering from chronic mercury poisoning. There have also been other cases, for example, in Jiyunhe Canal in Tianjin and Jinzhou Bay in Liaoning Province. In 2007, Baihua Lake, a water source for the city of Guiyang, was found to be heavily polluted by mercury emissions from coal power plants and smelting plants upstream.
A number of Chinese studies have found high concentrations of mercury in rice and vegetables growing near mercury pollution sources. A recent UN environmental protection report found that, over the last 200 years, mercury emissions from human activity has increased three-fold. Annual emissions have reached 2,000 tons globally.
China's contribution to total global mercury emissions is approximately 600 tons a year, more than one-quarter of the world's total. This is caused by its heavy reliance on burning coal for its electricity and energy needs. This coal rush looks set to expand, according to China's current 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15). Unfortunately, alongside the increasing use of coal will come increased mercury emissions as well as the associated health impacts.
China's mercury control work is in its early stages. The country lacks a national mercury emissions inventory as well as comprehensive mercury emissions data. It does not have a mercury pollution monitoring network or a robust pollution information disclosure system. In addition, the public, industry and local governments have limited awareness of the effects of mercury pollution in the environment.
There has been some progress in China. In September, the revised Air Emission Standard for Thermal Power Plants limits mercury emissions to 0.03 mg/m3. This is a step in the right direction but the technologies already exist to reduce mercury levels from coal plants to less than 0.01 mg/m3, which is a much safer level to aim for.
Mercury pollution does not remain a local issue however. It is taken in the air and water traveling long distances. In the last two decades, for example, scientists have found high concentrations of mercury in fish in remote lakes in Europe and North America, far removed from industrial sources of mercury.
Each nation must agree to provide its own mercury inventory, tighten mercury emissions standards, as well as earmark more resources for mercury control technologies, and promote awareness on mercury pollution.
Ultimately, the most effective step will be to move away from burning coal, which is the primary source of mercury pollution. A healthy, safe future is one that using energy as efficiently as possible along side clean, renewable energy sources. All nations, including China, must move away from coal to reduce mercury poisoning of their people and the environment as well as move us away from climate change.
Mercury pollution is a local and a global problem. For long-term success, any solution needs to be at both a national and an international level. All nations must ensure the UN meeting this week concludes successfully with concrete steps toward an international agreement that can move us closer to a safer, healthier world.
The author is a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace. firstname.lastname@example.org