In Focus

“We want to position sustainable chemistry as a key concept”

Interview with Dr Hans-Christian Stolzenberg (UBA)

In 2002, participants at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg made a commitment that by 2020, chemicals must be produced and used in all phases of their life cycle to minimise significant adverse effects on human health and the environment. Is this an achievable goal? In this interview with eco@work, Dr Hans-Christian Stolzenberg, Head of the International Chemicals Management Unit at the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA) and an expert in international chemicals policy and regulation, describes the advantages and disadvantages of international conventions, spells out what he would like to see in future agreements and explains what sustainable chemistry has to offer.

Dr Stolzenberg, wouldn’t you say that chemicals need an international framework agreement with clear targets and commitments, as is already in place for climate change?

I think that an international framework convention on chemicals is unrealistic, for several reasons. Many emerging economies would distance themselves from this type of agreement on the grounds that it would limit their freedom to pursue their own approach to national development. There would also be strong opposition from industry, which would argue that many countries are still not complying with even the most basic regulations on chemicals management. For example, a large number of countries have not yet introduced the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). But more to the point, there is already a measure of “convention fatigue” in relation to this highly complex topic. And last but not least, we already have a number of international agreements in place, such as the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, the Basel Convention, which deals with hazardous wastes, the Rotterdam Convention on international trade in hazardous chemicals, and the new Minamata Convention on Mercury, which was years in the making.

How effective are these agreements?

These conventions are binding under international law and are therefore an important building block in international chemicals policy. However, in many cases, they are simply the lowest common denominator. A further challenge is that they do not yet include any compliance mechanisms, which means that there are no sanctions to impose on countries which fail to implement them. For that reason, additional measures are required.

Can you give us some examples?

A good example is the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which was adopted in 2006 and is administered by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). SAICM is a policy framework which aims to achieve the sound management of chemicals throughout their life cycle and includes objectives and implementation arrangements. It is a voluntary approach but in my view, its particular value is that it covers so many different sectors and stakeholders. It is currently looking at the period beyond 2020, and as the SAICM national focal point, my team and I are involved in this process, working closely with the German Environment Ministry.

What would you like to see coming out of this process?

We need to look at what has worked and what could be done better. Globally, we need a higher level of ambition for chemicals management, with more action plans and mandatory targets. It is also important to prioritise and to adopt a science-based approach to determine where the need for action is greatest. At the Federal Environment Agency, we are also trying to position sustainable (green) chemistry as a key concept to guide chemicals management.

What contribution can sustainable chemistry make?

It combines economic innovation with a precautionary approach to the protection of the environment and health, weighs up all the levels of sustainability in order to find the best way forward, and seeks to use chemicals as sustainably as possible. Sustainable chemistry is based on a holistic approach which aims to achieve continuous improvements in processes. Support for the evolution and broad-based application of sustainable chemistry will be provided, incidentally, by the International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre (ISC3) launched by the German Environment Ministry and the Federal Environment Agency. Among other things, ISC3 will analyse and disseminate commercially viable business models based on sustainable chemistry.

Thank you for talking to eco@work.
The interviewer was Christiane Weihe.