U.S. Mercury Turnaround Inspires International Accord

Because the U.S. has committed to reducing mercury emissions, China and India have agreed to follow suit.

Representatives from more than 140 countries signed onto a new United Nations agreement which calls for coordinated global cuts in the use and release of mercury. Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin associated with industrial activities. Last week's landmark agreement follows on the heels of the Obama administration pledging to overturn a Bush era plan to allow some U.S. power plants to increase mercury emissions despite the health and ecological risks. According to U.N. insiders, the American turnaround on the issue helped convince China and India, the world's two fastest developing large nations, to agree with the proposed emissions cuts.

"This is great news for reducing mercury pollution around the world, and shows a commitment from the Obama administration to international environmental issues," said Susan Egan Keane, a policy analyst for the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation's leading environmental groups. "The United States has taken a leadership role that will chart a new course on mercury protections around the world."

A forthcoming legally binding international treaty—slated to be enacted by 2013—will reduce the intentional use of mercury in industrial processes and products and will limit emissions of the neurotoxin from coal-fired power plants and smelters, while also mandating cleanups of mercury waste sites.

Environmentalists hope that the American policy change on mercury emissions foreshadows a similar about-face from the U.S. on its willingness to participate in a global treaty to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. The Bush administration staunchly opposed signing onto the Kyoto Protocol aimed at mitigating or forestalling global warming.

Sources: NRDC; Zero Mercury Working Group