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New body aims to limit pollution’s deadly toll

NEW YORK, USA – Pollution is widespread – and often fatal. Dirty air alone is responsible for 6.7 million deaths globally every year, while conservative estimates suggest that in 2019, 5.5 million people died from heart disease linked to lead exposure.

To stem the pollution crisis, countries agreed in 2022 to establish a new body that would provide policymakers with robust, independent information on chemicals, waste and pollution.

Negotiators are fine tuning the details of this new science-policy panel. Once operational, it will complete a trifecta of similar scientific bodies designed to counter the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.

“Pollution is an urgent global issue, on par with climate change and biodiversity loss,” says Tessa Goverse, principal coordinator of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)-hosted secretariat of the ad hoc open-ended working group, which is tasked with preparing the foundational elements for establishing the panel. “What we’ve been missing is a strong and comprehensive science-policy interface to tackle the pollution pillar of the triple planetary crisis. Now the global community is constructively working towards a panel that can deliver policy impacts that save lives and protect the environment for decades to come.”

The new science-policy panel can help to translate scientific findings into action and is expected to work strategically with the recently adopted Global Framework on Chemicals and numerous Multilateral Environmental Agreements.

Later this month, delegates will gather in Nairobi, Kenya for the sixth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6), the world’s top decision-making body on the environment. They are expected to discuss how to strengthen implementation of international environmental accords and re-enforce the link between science and policymaking.

Ahead of that gathering, here is what to expect from the new science-policy panel.

What is the aim of the new science-policy panel?  

It seeks to equip policymakers with the best available science, enabling them to make well-informed decisions and develop policies to lessen the toll of toxic chemicals, waste and pollution on human health and the environment.

“There’s a lot of information out there but the landscape is quite fragmented because of a tendency to look at issues chemical by chemical,” said Goverse. “The panel has the potential to look at chemicals, waste and pollution in a more integrated way and offer the knowledge for more holistic solutions.”

Why is the new panel necessary? 

Chemicals bring many benefits to society. But their unsafe and unsustainable management means hazardous and long-lived chemicals are polluting air, land and water. This threatens human health and ecosystems. For example, pesticides used to kill insects leak into rivers and lakes. Discarded medicines end up in wastewater. Contaminated liquids from waste dumps seep into soil.

Those problems are expected to mount. By 2025, the world’s municipalities will produce 2.2 billion tonnes of waste, more than three times the amount generated in 2009. The size of the global chemical industry is projected to double by 2030.

“We need urgent action because worldwide the issues are growing and the risks are wide-ranging,” Goverse said.

What are the science-policy panel’s key functions? 

The panel is expected to conduct assessments of current issues and identify potential solutions, in particular those relevant to developing countries. It will also identify key gaps in scientific research, support communication between scientists and policymakers, and raise awareness. The panel will also assist information-sharing and capacity building.

Will the panel be looking for emerging areas of concern? 

Yes. It will also undertake “horizon scanning” to identify trends and emerging issues that could be relevant to policy makers in the future.

“In these fast-changing times, it is imperative to better understand how the chemicals, waste and pollution crisis could evolve,” said Goverse. “To secure a pollution-free world and achieve wider sustainable development goals, we need to be ahead of the curve.”

Are any of the emerging types of pollution and waste especially worrying? 

Yes. A 2020 UNEP report highlighted several of them, including endocrine disrupting chemicals, microplastics, persistent pharmaceutical pollutants, including antibiotics, and nanomaterials.

When will the panel be up and running? 

In 2022, an ad hoc open-ended working group was established to prepare proposals for the panel. The working group aims to complete this task this year. Once that is done, UNEP will convene an intergovernmental meeting where countries would consider the panel’s establishment.

Who will be on the panel? 

The panel will be an independent intergovernmental body which governments will be invited to join. Member governments will make up the panel’s governing body and approve its programme of work.

Who else will be involved in the panel? 

To produce policy-relevant deliverables, the panel will depend on the contributions of thousands of scientists around the world. It will also need to engage with local communities, workers and Indigenous Peoples, since they are often the ones on the receiving end of pollution. Engagement with the private sector is also relevant for addressing the source of pollution and waste, and for coming up with solutions. But careful attention must be paid to potential conflicts of interests.

How will the science-policy panel contribute to Multilateral Environmental Agreements?  

These accords can both contribute to and benefit from the findings of the panel. They could invite the panel to look into specific scientific and technical matters that require global attention. Examples include the use of chemicals in products and the reduction of the footprint of high-impact sectors. Relevant agreements include the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, which set out measures for handling chemicals and waste, and the Minamata Convention to manage the use of mercury.

Could the panel help counter the other two prongs of the triple planetary crisis, climate change and nature loss? 

Yes. The sound management of chemicals and waste, and the prevention of pollution can boost the fight against climate change by reducing pollutants that are greenhouse gases. It can also help to achieve the goals of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which calls for a reduction in the negative impacts of pollution.

The sixth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6) will be held from 26 February to 1 March 2024 at the UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, under the theme: Effective, inclusive and sustainable multilateral actions to tackle climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Through its resolutions and calls to action, the Assembly provides leadership and catalyzes intergovernmental action on the environment. 



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