The call for a global science policy platform for the monitoring of chemicals and waste that corresponds to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is growing. However, there are concerns about how long it will take the UN to respond to the proposal. In response to this, the Swiss government will introduce a resolution in February next year to set up a body at UNEA5.2, the virtual meeting of the UN Environment Assembly.

This was announced by Katrin Schneeberger, Director of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, last week at a conference organized by the federal government. The Federal Government is frustrated about the postponement of the International Conference on Chemical Management until next year – the Federal Government is currently chairing it. It was hoped that the meeting would provide impetus for a new international chemicals and waste body at the highest level.

There is broad support for an intergovernmental body to improve the interface between science and politics. Federal Environment Minister Jochen Flasbarth emphasizes the need for action, but points out that this requires political will, awareness and resources. Tom Welton, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, also supports the proposal. He compares the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) to a two-legged chair and argues that a third chemical “leg” is the key to balance. “The limited, fragmented interactions between science and politics in the disposal of chemical waste contribute to health and environmental damage worldwide,” Welton said in an opinion piece. “We as chemists are uniquely positioned to become the engine room of the campaign against chemical pollution and waste.”

Proponents of an intergovernmental body argue that the international community is not good at tracking and responding to new scientific knowledge about chemical waste. A new panel would evaluate the results, identify emerging concerns, and bring together policy makers and academics to provide a scientific basis for action. A campaign organized by the International Panel on Chemical Pollution in March collected over 1,700 signatures from scientists who support the idea of ​​an agency for chemicals and waste.

Why does it take so long to trade waste and chemicals around the world?

Many governments and experts may be frustrated with the slow pace, but they should realize that it took over five years to get IPBES in place, comments Bob Watson, a chemist and former chairman of the IPCC and IPBES. “Although it was a long process, it meant governments were fully on board. People have to be pragmatic – establishing new mechanisms takes time. Everyone must agree to a set of principles and procedures that create legitimacy, credibility and transparency; Process is everything. ‘

Zhanyun Wang, Senior Scientist at ETH Zurich and organizer of an open letter in science last February, who pressed for an international chemicals agency, blames the pandemic for the delay. “In order to initiate the establishment of such a body, a consensus / mandate from the countries is required. However, due to the pandemic, countries were unable to meet and discuss technical matters. It is a general challenge for international diplomacy. ‘

But the good thing is that the international community doesn’t have to start from scratch, says Wang. “I hope that such a facility can be set up relatively quickly. As the global threats from chemical pollution become more pressing, the sooner such a body can be set up, the sooner it can start working to inform the scientific and political community, ”he said. “For example, it is likely that UNEA5.2 will also initiate intergovernmental negotiations on a global plastics convention. Given the complexity of plastics and the problems that come with them, this can be a challenging process. And here such a science policy body can help to inform the negotiations. “

Watson, who favors an IPCC-like body after writing a UNEP paper last year to strengthen the interface between science and politics for chemicals, believes the Swiss resolution is an important impetus. It would be even better, however, if a group of developed and developing countries presented a joint resolution, he says.

Then the UNEA must approve and initiate a negotiation process to define the principles and procedures, which must encompass many key issues from the scope to the location of the secretariat. One major stumbling block is likely to be cost, as has often been the case for the IPCC and IPBES, which cost $ 5 to 8 million (£ 3.6 to 5.8 million) a year each, notes Watson. Further topics are governance structures and cooperation with existing mechanisms.

Wang agrees that the Swiss resolution will accelerate the process and lead to preliminary negotiations on the next steps. “The IPCC and IPBES have shown how such bodies can have a tremendous impact in raising public awareness and urgency and informing international and national governments. Therefore, I am confident that such a body will be of great help in making the global threats from chemical pollution more visible to the general public and policy makers around the world, including early warning of worrying issues and as a basis for future action. ‘

Saleem Ali, Professor of Energy and Environment at the University of Delaware, USA, also welcomes the “growing dynamism” under the leadership of Switzerland. Ali was part of a team that released a report earlier this year highlighting the many benefits of a more effective science-policy interface for chemicals and waste. He fears that the delay so far could be due to a lack of funds to support the secretariat of a body and the postponement of important international meetings.

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