Governments and other stakeholders are now setting up the objectives and means of implementation for the process beyond 2020, and the international conference in March 2019 is when the core of the new agreement will have to take shape.

Chemicals in jars on a bench
There are currently more that 100 000 types of chemical on the market with a range of hazardous properties.

There are currently more than 100 000 types of chemicals on the market with a range of hazardous properties, and new substances are designed every day. This presents a major management problem. People and their environment are suffering from both acute toxic effects from chemicals as well as low dose exposure over long periods to mixtures of substances with unknown effects. The level of chemical safety varies greatly both between and within countries, and poverty is a risk factor for hazardous exposure.

In response to such risks the international community set up the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) in 2006, which aims to minimize chemical risks for all by 2020. That is only one year away, and it has long been clear that with the current rate of progress there will be a need for a process beyond 2020. Governments, NGOs, the private sector and academia engaged in the voluntary SAICM agreement are now at a crucial stage of the design of a post-2020 agreement. The most important deliberations are under way right now in preparation of the open-ended working group of SAICM, scheduled to convene in March 2019.

Lessons from the current international chemical safety regime

What can be learned from the experience of SAICM so far? An evaluation of SAICM concluded that success in achieving increased chemical safety is about political will and capacity at the national level to put legislation in place and ensure that it is implemented and enforced. The evaluation also pointed out that lack of technical capacity continues to be a key barrier in many low-income countries, as well as gaps in national coordination between ministries and among different stakeholders.

Research from SEI supports these findings. A global mapping of one of the components in basic chemicals legislation – classification and labelling – was recently carried out. It showed that as of April 2017 only 26% of UN member states had fully introduced the legislation that countries on a voluntary basis had agreed to implement by 2008. When looking at possible explanatory factors behind the delay in introducing this type of legislation, countries’ lack of regulatory capacity stood out as one of the most important barriers.

4 ingredients for achieving chemical safety

So, what is the recipe for a successful new regime on chemicals management? Here are some key ingredients.

1. Improved regulatory capacity should be a core component of the post-2020 regime on chemicals

Without sufficient regulatory capacity at the national level, progress on chemicals management will continue to be slow. All potential new actions agreed under SAICM will benefit from improved regulatory capacity in general, and technical chemical regulatory capacity specifically. Regulatory capacity of a country has many dimensions – and there are important lessons learned from SAICM evaluations on how to improve the effectiveness of capacity building. These include the importance of national ownership of any project initiated, of long-term engagement instead of short projects over a few years, and of individual capacity building efforts being anchored in an overall national chemicals management strategy.

2. Improved regulatory capacity at the national level brings co-benefits in other policy areas

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their implementation at national level are also likely restrained by low regulatory capacity. Coordinated efforts for improved national level regulatory capacity would benefit not only the post 2020 SAICM progress but also the wider SDG implementation .

3. Back to basics: the new regime needs to give guidance on where to start

The current SAICM framework contains a large number of activities. The Overall Orientation and Guidance document offered a first step towards prioritization among the multitude of desired actions. However, this is still a very broad agenda where some components are less likely to work if others are not already in place. A future regime could set out more clearly what the basics are in chemical safety and what should be added as desirable second steps. I would argue the first basic step has three key components:

  • Basic legislation covering institutional infrastructure governing the placement of chemicals on the market in a country (as described in detail in the so-called LIRA guidance available on the UN Environment web site).
  • Strong national ownership and horizontal coordination of a national chemicals policy.
  • Budget allocation from national budgets to cover the above.

4. The post-2020 regime should support regional efforts on SAICM implementation 

In other contexts, such as in the Montreal Protocol implementation, regional collaboration has been a success factor for improved implementation of international agreements. Countries can pool their resources and strengthen enforcement efforts when working together with neighbouring countries. National governments could explore options for regional collaboration as a backbone in their chemicals management policy.

Speeding up delivery on the goal of reduced chemical risks for all would not only reduce human suffering and save costs to societies, it would also contribute to the advancement of the larger 2030 agenda.