Minamata Convention on Mercury, COP1, part 1

Update from Minamata Convention on Mercury, COP1 (1st Conference of the Parties), Geneva, Switzerland, 22-29th September

UNEP (the United Nations Environment Programme) first raised the issue of mercury as the most important, unregulated, pollutant in the global environment in the mid 2000s and, in response, established the first INC (International Negotiating Committee) and the UNEP Partnership Areas. These Partnerships were formed to coordinate work under the negotiations relating to the different areas of concern. The IEA Clean Coal Centre was appointed the first Lead of the UNEP Coal Partnership back in 2007 and,10 years later, we still hold that position. However, we welcome Peter Nelson, Professor at MacQuarrie University, Sydney, Australia, as the co-lead and appreciate his help to share the growing workload as the convention moves through ratification to action.

After seven rounds of negotiation, the text of the Minamata Convention was agreed and, following submission of the required minimum 50 ratifications, moved into force in August this year. As I sit at the COP1 plenary today, the number of countries which have ratified has reached 81 and is rising daily.

Whilst the convention covers everything relating to mercury – emissions, trading, storage, markets and so on – it does have a strong relevance for the coal sector. It is estimated that total emissions from the coal sector are around 25% of the total, however, with most of the sources of mercury being hard to quantify (such as releases from illegal gold mining), emission totals are currently a best guess. One of the first challenges of the convention is to establish a baseline – each ratifying country must submit an MIA – Minamata Initial Assessment – in which the country must identity national sources and issues. Although UNEP provide an inventory calculation toolkit to help create national inventories, the emission factors for coal are somewhat generalised. The Coal Partnership, with IEA CCC in the lead, has therefore been working with individual countries – China, India, Russia, South Africa, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand – to measure emissions from actual coal-fired plants in each region to establish country and coal-specific emission factors. Over and above improving the accuracy of the coal sector baselines, this work also helps understand the mercury chemistry and behaviour in each country (as this varies with coal type and plant configuration) and will help to determine which control strategies will work best in each case. So, for example, whereas China is finding that mercury emissions are dropping drastically with their cross-sector installation of SO2 and NOx controls, countries such as Russia and South Africa may have to consider approaches at some plants which are based more on particulate control systems.

The text of the Minamata convention is surprisingly short and coal, along with other stationary sources, falls squarely within Article 8 on emissions. This article notes the requirement for a each party to have measures for mercury reduction in place on stationary sources within 10 years of ratification which can take the form of:

– a quantified goal for control or reduction;

– the setting of emission limit values;

– the use of BAT/BEP (best available technology/best environmental practice);

– use of a multi-pollutant control strategy that would deliver mercury co-benefits; or

– alternative measures to reduce emissions.

So basically – all options are open and there is no quantified reduction goal or emission limit for stationary sources.

During the final years of negotiations prior to ratification of Minamata, the Coal Partnership and country experts worked to produce BAT/BEP (best available technology/best environmental practice) guidelines for options for mercury control for sources including coal fired plants. These are similar to the EU BREF (the European Union’s BAT reference requirements, discussed in a previous blog) in that they list all the potential options for mercury reduction from coal cleaning and blending through to activated carbon and oxidant treatments. But, unlike the EU BREF, the Minamata BAT guidelines do not contain emission limit values and are, therefore, more of a handbook on potential reduction strategies than a prescriptive guide on how to comply. The Minamata BAT/BEP guidelines can be found here.

The Minamata BAT guidelines open with several caveats, including the acknowledgement of economic and technical challenges in some emerging economies. It also recognises that controlling mercury from some coals can be more challenging than from others. It is a living document which can be updated as knowledge and experience grows in mercury control. However, despite this, India and, to a lesser extent, Thailand, continue to raise objections that the document was not applicable to the low grade, high ash coals that are common in these countries. I disagree to some extent that this is an issue as the BAT document already addresses the differences between coals but I do accept that it would be beneficial for demonstration projects in these regions and these coals would go a long way to evaluate whether this is actually a real issue or not. Although the chemistry of mercury capture can be complex, it is usually the case that balancing the presence of halogens (or similar oxidising agents) and unburnt carbon in the flue gas is the key to capturing mercury and so there will always be a technical means to maximise mercury control. Cost will, of course, ultimately determine whether the best approach is feasible in practice. The reality is, the BAT is a guidance document referred to by the text of the convention and, as such, is not a legally binding document and so individual countries are not committed to any specific control obligations at this stage.

As the COP continues until Friday, we still have to agree on bureaucratic issues such as the permanent location for the Convention Secretariat, reporting mechanisms, financial mechanisms and so on. Contact groups are already running late into the night to finalise as much as possible before the high level meeting of ministers on Friday. It’s going to be a long week.