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Science-policy Panel on Chemicals Can Draw on Lessons from BRS Conventions

The Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm (BRS) Conventions has published a report detailing existing mechanisms for the science-policy interface under the BRS Conventions, outlining possible synergies between the existing mechanisms and a future science-policy panel for chemicals and waste, and suggesting issues for stakeholders to consider in developing a new science-policy panel to contribute to sound chemicals and waste management and pollution prevention.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has characterized the interconnected threats posed by pollution and waste, nature and biodiversity loss, and climate change as a “triple planetary crisis,” driven by unsustainable production and consumption. The 2022 UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) resolution on establishing a science-policy panel to support action on chemicals, waste, and pollution prevention (UNEP/EA.5/Res.8) reflects concerns regarding the impacts of hazardous chemicals and waste on human health and the environment. In the resolution, UNEA decides to establish an independent intergovernmental panel that would provide policy-relevant, but not policy-prescriptive, advice to support international agencies and instruments, countries, and the private sector in their work to promote the sound management of chemicals and waste and address pollution.

The 2022 report titled, ‘From Science to Action Under the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions,’ explains that the BRS Conventions are “structured to ensure … science plays a significant role in policymaking.” Over the years, it notes, they have strengthened their work to integrate new expertise into decision making, involve stakeholders, and build networks and partnerships for science-based action. It recommends that as it develops a science-policy panel, the global community draw on lessons and examples from the BRS Conventions, including from:

  • the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, which develops technical guidelines for the environmentally sound management of waste that are then approved by the Conference of the Parties (COP);
  • the Chemical Review Committee (CRC) under the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, which reviews proposals to list substances under the Convention and notifications of final regulatory action against criteria set out for chemicals and severely hazardous pesticide formulations; and
  • the Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Review Committee (POPRC) under the Stockholm Convention on POPs, which undertakes a scientific review of chemicals nominated prior to the COP taking policy-oriented decisions.

The report also describes formal procedures to facilitate collaborative work with, for example, joint and back-to-back COPs, and back-to-back CRC and POPRC meetings, with overlap in participation by experts from governments, civil society, and business and industry. It highlights institutional and policy linkages among the BRS Conventions, which are tackling different aspects of many of the same issues. For example, chemicals under review or listed in the Stockholm Convention annexes are often on the Rotterdam Convention’s agenda, as countries take final regulatory action to ban or restrict their use.

On strengthening the science-policy interface at the international level, the report notes preliminary discussions on the panel that have emphasized that an independent body, not beholden to an issue-specific mandate, can offer a broader perspective on issues related to chemical pollution. Citing a 2020 UNEP report that assessed options for a science-policy interface, the report suggests that an effective chemicals and waste science-policy interface would: engage in horizon scanning; identify emerging issues of concern; monitor trends; identify, assess, and communicate about the environmental and human health issues associated with chemicals and waste; evaluate and refine response options; and stimulate new policy approaches. 

The report also stresses the importance of, inter alia:

  • producing new, research-based solutions to emerging and time-sensitive challenges related to chemicals and waste management and pollution;
  • interpreting and framing the issues for policymaking;
  • conveying this information to the wider chemicals and waste sector;
  • avoiding overlap with existing science-advisory and decision-making mechanisms; and
  • ensuring the panel fills gaps in the current structure of global chemicals governance.  

Among the elements in strengthening the science-policy interface, the report highlights:

  • representation, including drawing on the expertise of academic researchers, chemicals managers, producers of substances, those who use the substances, and those who are affected by the pollution;
  • transparency;
  • networks and partnerships, to facilitate communication about a given issue and strengthen ties between the chemicals regime and other sectors of environmental governance, including climate and biodiversity;
  • procedures for dealing with scientific uncertainty – a challenge in science-based policymaking that often creates a barrier to action on time-sensitive issues; and
  • proprietary knowledge, which is a significant obstacle to effectively managing risks posed by the production, use, and disposal of hazardous substances. 

In conclusion, the report highlights efforts under the BRS Conventions at the national level, to strengthen science-based decision making and implementation, including the joint “science to action” initiative launched in 2015, which is regularly updated to consider progress achieved and to establish new milestones. In January 2020, the BRS Secretariat hosted the first of what is expected to be a series of sub-regional workshops to enhance science-policy-industry interaction and to support countries in science-based decision making for the implementation of the Conventions. [Publication: From Science to Action Under the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions]