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Pollutant Registers Used to Assess Progress on Sustainability

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By IISD's SDG Knowledge Hub, February 17, 2022

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has published a report on using pollutant release transfer register (PRTR) information to evaluate progress towards SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production).

PRTRs collect and disseminate information on environmental releases and transfers of pollutants from industrial and other facilities. The registers have not previously been analyzed for tracking progress toward the SDGs. 

The OECD analysis focuses on: pollutant releases to air and water; releases from facilities in the manufacturing sector; and releases of specific pollutants of concern. The analysis developed approaches for using PRTR data from different countries to conduct a global-scale analysis on assessing progress towards the SDGs, specifically SDG target 12.4 on sound chemicals management, reducing chemical releases into the environment, and minimizing the adverse impacts of chemical releases on human health and the environment.

The project uses data on 14 pollutants tracked by seven PRTRs. The 14 pollutants include: atmospheric pollutants— sulphur oxides and particulate matter, high-volume air pollutants mainly released as by-products from the combustion of fossil fuels at manufacturing facilities; and toxic pollutants, the other 12 pollutants tracked in the analysis. The data focus on releases of the pollutants to air and water from 2008 through 2017 from facilities in the manufacturing sector.

The report considers releases of pollutants through point-in-time “snapshot” analyses, which identify the sectors, geographic regions, and medium of release driving pollutant releases; and trend analyses, which review the change in releases over time. The snapshot analyses find that: by pollutant, releases were driven by the atmospheric pollutants; by medium, releases were mainly to air; by pollutant, metals were the main drivers of toxicity impact scores; and by sector, releases were distributed across manufacturing subsectors. Releases were largest in the three PRTRs with the largest economies: the European PRTR, the US, and Japan. 

Trends analyses found, among others: for all pollutants, releases decreased by 47% from 2008 to 2017, driven by reductions in the atmospheric pollutants; and releases of the toxic pollutants decreased by 27%.

While existing PRTR data are the best source of information on pollutant releases in covered countries, limitations exist, including those that relate to reporting requirements and differences in reporting thresholds. The authors also note that some countries with large manufacturing sectors, such as China and India, do not have PRTRs. Therefore, while PRTRs in the analysis represent more than half of global manufacturing activity, the analysis cannot assess release trends in countries without PRTRs. It is also noted that the results of the trend analysis do not indicate that all pollutants are decreasing, or that releases from all sectors and sources, such as electric power generation, are decreasing. 

While this study presents trends on releases of specific pollutants in countries representing more than half of global manufacturing GDP, future work could be expanded to include additional pollutants and economies. In addition, while SDG target 12.4 is most closely aligned with available PRTR data and was selected as the focus of the initial phase of this study, future applications could address additional SDG targets (related to pollution, chemical management, and waste) for which PRTR data may be relevant in tracking progress.

The 2021 report is the 25th in a series of reports on PRTRs. It was prepared under the supervision of the OECD Working Group on PRTRs (WG-PRTRs) and published under the responsibility of the Chemicals and Biotechnology Committee. [Publication: Using PRTR Information to Evaluate Progress Towards the Sustainable Development Goal 12