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Scientists call for IPCC-like group on chemical pollution

UN Environment Assembly likely to vote in 2022 on whether to form panel

by XiaoZhi Lim, special to C&EN
October 29, 2021

Photo shows dead fish in shallow water by a shoreline.
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The UN Environment Assembly will consider a proposal from Switzerland to create an intergovernmental science-policy panel for chemicals and waste.

Saying industrial chemical pollution and its mitigation are serious global problems, scientists are calling for the formation of a group equivalent to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The scientists cite a lack of urgency among the public and politicians regarding chemical pollution, piecemeal chemical regulations around the world, and the current inability of policymakers to prevent pollution.

An open letter seeking creation of a science-policy panel to connect the scientific community and policy-makers and establish consensus on the issues of managing chemical pollution and waste was published in February (Science 2021, DOI: 10.1126/science.abe9090). By October, the letter had garnered support from more than 1,800 scientists worldwide.

In response to this call, the Swiss government plans to submit a resolution on creating the science-policy panel at the upcoming session of the United Nations Environment Assembly in February 2022. It will be up to governments to decide whether to pass the resolution and form an intergovernmental science-policy panel for chemicals and waste management.

Scientists discussed the formation of the panel at a workshop in late October organized by the Swiss nonprofit International Panel on Chemical Pollution (IPCP).

In 2009, a team of international researchers identified industrial chemical pollution as a threat that could render Earth uninhabitable for humans. But governments typically react to contamination until after it has occurred (Ecology and Society 2009, DOI: 10.5751/ES-03180-140232).

Policymakers have struggled to enhance chemicals and waste management for sustainability, Satoru Morishita, former vice-minister for global environmental affairs at Japan’s Ministry of the Environment, said at the IPCP’s workshop. “The consequence is no action,” he said.

The formation of an intergovernmental body would not only help governments act faster and earlier on chemical pollution, but also give the problem the urgency and visibility that it needs, said atmospheric chemist Robert T. Watson, who formerly chaired the IPCC.

Prior to the formation of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in 2012, the only major, globally discussed environmental issue was climate change, Watson said.

“The IPBES global assessment put biodiversity on the map,” he told the workshop. “The sort of science-policy interface we can foresee now for chemicals will do the same for chemicals. It will be talked about, it will be linked to the other big environmental and development-related issues.”

An intergovernmental science-policy body for chemicals and waste management would be a much-needed complement to the IPCC and IPBES in progressing towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals said Felix Wertli of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, which is leading the efforts to prepare the resolution.

Wertli noted that even though pollution is a priority for the UN Environment Programme, along with addressing climate change and loss of biodiversity, there is no science-policy panel to advise on the issue.

Some scientific groups including the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry support for the formation of an intergovernmental science-policy panel for chemicals and waste.

The American Chemical Society hasn’t taken a firm position as yet.

“The American Chemical Society encourages appropriate global harmonization of environmental, health, and safety initiatives to promote science and technology around the globe,” says Anthony Pitagno, director of government affairs and alliances, and at the American Chemical Society. “We look forward to seeing the details behind the Swiss proposal.” (ACS publishes C&EN.)

A significant hurdle to the formation of a science-policy panel on chemicals will be funding. Government agencies worldwide that regulate chemicals are resource-strapped, IPCP workshop participants said.

Nevertheless, it is crucial to maintain a long-term view, Zhanyun Wang, an environmental scientist at ETH Zurich, told the workshop. Persistent pollutants can linger for decades, and build up. Meanwhile electronic and plastic wastes are being generated in massive quantities every year. The problem could become irreversible after a certain point.

“That’s the biggest danger with chemical pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss,” Wang said. “There is a tipping point, and we don’t know where the tipping point is, so we need to act fast.”



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