Mercury and the build up to the 2013 UNEP legally binding instrument

Interest in mercury emissions and control for coal combustion is intensifying in the run up to the 4th round of negotiations on the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) global Legally Binding Instrument (LBI) on mercury, to be held in Uruguay in June this year. The LBI is due for completion in February 2013 after the 5th and final round of negotiations.

The LBI covers trade, export and storage of mercury (batteries, light switches and so on), fate and transport (include terminal storage of methane in deep mines and land remediation) as well as all emission sources and uses of mercury such as chlor-alkali plants, gold mining and, of course, coal combustion. As the largest source of mercury emissions to the atmosphere from human activities, coal-combustion is one of the major targets for control and reduction. However, coordinating the approach towards mercury reduction between the 190+ nations actively involved in the negotiations is a challenge. Although the initial negotiations made clear the overwhelming agreement that control and reduction of mercury are required, the latter rounds of negotiations have become entangled in arguments over funding and the actual applicability of an LBI to the coal sector, which varies so greatly globally. Emerging economies, especially China and India, are more than aware that they attract attention due to the sheer scale of current mercury emissions and the continued growth in emissions due to industrial development and modernisation. However, they are also aware that much of the current mercury problem is a legacy from emissions created during industrialisation of the western world. There is no doubt that, for the LBI to work, it will need to have a financial backbone, possibly via GEF or similar international bodies.

The LBI will have to be quite flexible to suit the different situations in the different regions of the world. Some countries already have mercury legislation, most notably Canada and North America. The new MATS Rule (Mercury and Air Toxics) in the USA sets mercury emission reduction requirements which are a significant challenge for many coal-fired plants. This is covered in an upcoming new CCC report by Lesley Sloss. The EU and other regions (such as Japan) have not set emission reduction requirements for mercury but are already seeing significant mercury reductions as a result of the co-benefit effects of controls on other pollutant emissions. Plants installed with both FGD and SCR (common in Japan, increasingly common in China and to become the required norm in the EU by 2023 under the Industrial Emissions Directive, IED) are likely to see at least 80% reduction in mercury emission with many plants reporting over 90% mercury control. It can therefore be argued that some countries do not need to be setting legislation to target mercury emissions from coal-combustion.

Emerging economies, most notably India, are concerned about what requirements may be set for coal emissions. India has few controls for sulphur and nitrogen that can be relied on for future co-benefit effects and are unlikely to be able to invest in mercury controls before these other pollutants have been dealt with. For them a multi-pollutant approach would be most appropriate. However, the scale of the coal industry in India and similar regions poses a significant challenge in terms of cost. In order for the treaty to be agreeable to all parties, it must achieve mercury reductions but not pose a threat to national energy supply sustainability. India would like to see the mercury issue dealt with on a per capita basis rather than a country total since, relative to North America and the EU, India’s per capita emissions of mercury are relatively low.

Most parties do not feel that anything approaching the stringency of the US MATs is necessary or appropriate for all signatories. However, an emission limit approach does have merit. An emission limit set at a level which can be achieved by a standard coal-fired plant fitted with appropriate pollution controls (FF or ESP, FGD and SCR) should achieve significant mercury reduction. An emission limit value set at a level which is achievable with such controls would suit North America and the EU. This is especially suitable for the EU where the IED is already causing a decline in coal use. However, an emission limit value would be a significant challenge for countries such as India. Although a general emission reduction target could achieve similar results, a reduction target is a significant challenge for those countries who intend to see continued expansion in coal use in the future (including most of Asia and, following the development of CCS, potentially the EU as well).

Discussions at the INC have shown that it is very unlikely that a LBI will be created which applies a level playing field for reduction targets and or emission limits. These are more likely to be set on a country-by-country basis based on what is feasible. There is the possibility of a menu-type approach to allow countries to select the format of the instrument that would suit them best. For example:
1 – each country could select two or more significant sources and concentrate on these for control;
2 – each country could select their own approach to control – BAT, emission limit, or national reduction goal;
3 – each country could select one of the following approaches for compliance monitoring:
– develop and maintain an emission inventory;
– develop a National Implementation Plan.

Before the INC4 negotiations in Uruguay in June this year, there are other, more fundamental issues which must also be dealt with:
– baseline/starting points. If the LBI takes on a reduction target feature then there needs to be a starting point from which to determine future reduction targets. UNEP is currently working with AMAP, CCC and other partners to coordinate the production of national emission inventories for as many countries as possible. However, the quality of these inventories varies significantly depending on the amount of country-specific data available. For some countries, the inventories are small and relatively unchanging, but for countries in the EU, Japan, North America and even China, where some mercury reduction is already being achieved in some sectors, the defined starting point is of immense importance;
–  the capture of mercury from power plant emissions will mean an increase in mercury in by-products and wastes. The ultimate use, storage or disposal of these materials must be considered to ensure total mercury control;
–  measurement technologies currently defined by ISO do not include the most appropriate and applicable methods for mercury. Wet chemical methods are challenging and clumsy and CEMs (continuous monitoring systems) are too expensive to be considered in many regions. Options such as the US EPA mercury monitoring toolkit, based on sorbent trap technolgy, are relatively cheap and simple and should be both standardised and made more widely available.

At the same time as these negotiations continue, the European Commission is also working towards new BREFS (BAT reference documents) to accompany the new IED (Industrial Emissions Directive). Although the IED does not set emission limits or control requirements for mercury, it does introduce new annual monitoring requirements. The BREFS, due for completion in 2014/2015, are likely to include information on BAT for mercury on a co-benefit basis for technologies such as FGD and SCR.

The CCC (Lesley Sloss) have the position of Lead on the UNEP Coal Partnership, advising the negotiations. The CCC have overseen the production of the POG – Process Optimisation Document. Although this document cannot be regarded as BAT/BEP (due to the legal weight it would then carry), the POG does cover all the potential routes for mercury reduction at any coal-fired plant. The POG has been translated into Chinese and Russian and is available as a free download. The POG has been further developed into a downloadable “exe” programme which allows the user to predict mercury emissions based on coal and plant-specific data and then “test” different mercury control options via the model. Both the POG and iPOG are available as free downloads from the CCC and UNEP websites. The POG and iPOG and related Coal Partnership work has been presented at previous rounds of negotiation and will be central to the UK and European Commission stance in the upcoming round.

As part of the sideline work to the negotiations, the European Commission has been actively involved in outreach projects towards China, Russia, India and South Africa. The IEA CCC has been overseeing 1million euro funding on inventory development and mercury demonstration reduction projects in these countries.Information on these projects is available at:

The success of these projects has led to expansion in the EU funding into projects in South East Asia. CCC is also involved in a new US Department of State on mercury and black carbon management, also in South East Asia. More details can be obtained upon request.