Summary report, 6 October 2022

OEWG1: Science-Policy Panel to Contribute Further to the Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste and to Prevent Pollution

Chemicals, wastes, and pollution represent one of the three pillars of the triple planetary crisis—climate, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Recognizing the importance of addressing chemicals, waste, and pollution, the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) has had these issues on the agenda since its inception. However, discussion on a science-policy interface (SPI) only began in 2018, in recognition of the need to ensure policymaking in this sector is backed by sound science. This resulted in UNEA’s adoption of resolution 5/8 earlier this year, which established a process to discuss proposals for a science-policy panel (SPP) on chemicals, wastes, and pollution.

The first segment of the first session of the ad hoc Open-ended Working Group on an SPP to Contribute Further to the Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste and to Prevent Pollution (OEWG 1.1) kickstarted the process. This one-day meeting provided Member States with the opportunity to provide input on how the process should look going forward, as well as initial consideration of aspects of the potential SPP’s form.

Deliberations at OEWG 1.1 focused on three areas: general statements; timetable and organization of work for the OEWG; and preparation of proposals for establishing an SPP. They underscored the need for a flexible, lean SPP that is policy-relevant, not policy-prescriptive. They further noted the importance of the health sector and recognized the opportunity to leverage the experience of similar SPPs when discussing function, scope, and form. Member States generally agreed that three meetings of the OEWG scheduled for 2023/2024 would be sufficient, with an intergovernmental meeting after that to consider the proposal developed by the OEWG.

Member States also debated whether a stepwise approach or parallel approach to addressing issues of function, scope, and form would be most efficient. There was also concern about costs: the costs of running the process, including high meeting costs. The process is funded by voluntary contributions and participants looked at how the OEWG could be run more efficiently.

Geopolitical issues had the potential to mar discussions: the proposal to appoint Gudi Alkemade (Netherlands) to the Bureau and elect her as Chair was opposed by another Member State. They requested her candidacy be put to a vote, which would take the form of a secret ballot. As OEWG 1.1 was a hybrid meeting, a secret ballot was not possible, meaning her election will be finalized at OEWG 1.2, scheduled for early 2023.

Despite these issues, OEWG 1.1 provided valuable input from Member States on how they perceive the work should go ahead and in what order. Discussions were largely congenial and constructive, providing valuable input to the Secretariat for future deliberations.

OEWG 1.1 met in a fully hybrid format on Thursday, 6 October 2022.

A Brief History of the Science-Policy Panel

Chemicals, waste, and pollution have become permanent features of our daily lives. They also pose direct threats to the environment and human health. In response to this, the 4th meeting of UNEA, held in March 2018, adopted a resolution that calls on all stakeholders to strengthen the SPI at all levels. It also requested the Secretariat prepare a report assessing options for strengthening the SPI at the international level for the sound management of chemicals and waste.

At UNEA-5, held in February-March 2022, Member States adopted UNEA resolution 5/8, which calls for establishing a new SPP to contribute further to the sound management of chemicals and waste and prevention of pollution.

As envisaged, this panel could support countries in their efforts to implement multilateral environmental agreements and other relevant international instruments, promote the sound management of chemicals and waste, and address pollution by providing policy-relevant scientific advice on issues. The panel could also further support relevant multilateral agreements, other international instruments and intergovernmental bodies, the private sector, and other relevant stakeholders in their work.

To establish this panel, UNEA decided to convene an OEWG to prepare proposals for the SPP and is expected to complete its work by the end of 2024. An intergovernmental meeting will be held to consider the proposals generated by the OEWG process.

OEWG 1.1 Report

Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, Director, Economy Division, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), chaired the opening of the meeting.

Election of Officers

Aggarwal-Khan noted that the Bureau will comprise two officers from each of the five UN regions. She presented the nominations as follows:

  • African Group: Cyrus Mageria (Kenya) and Oumar Diaouré Cisse (Mali);
  • Asia-Pacific Group: Salma Qadoori Jabir (Iraq) and Saqlain Syedah (Pakistan);
  • Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC): Linroy Christian (Antigua and Barbuda) and Valentina Sierra (Uruguay); and
  • Western European and Others Group (WEOG): Gudi Alkemade (Netherlands) and Michel Tschirren (Switzerland).

She said four nominations had been received from the Eastern European Group (EEG)—Ana Berejiani (Georgia), Alexandru Roznov (Romania), Vladimir Lenev (Russian Federation), and Roman Filonenko (Ukraine). As no candidates had been endorsed by the EEG, she encouraged the group to hold further consultations to endorse two candidates for the Bureau, noting the Bureau will be finalized at OEWG 1.2.

Aggarwal-Khan noted a nomination for Gudi Alkemade as Chair and invited Member States to appoint, by acclamation, the Bureau members and Alkemade as Chair of the Bureau.

The RUSSIAN FEDERATION opposed the candidature of Alkemade on the Bureau and her appointment as Chair, requesting that a vote be held. The European Union (EU), COSTA RICA, and the US supported the candidature of Alkemade. Austria, for WEOG, expressed disappointment and concern that such a precedent can undermine the multilateral process. COLOMBIA called for avoiding the politicization of the meeting. The Secretariat noted that a secret ballot cannot be held in a hybrid setting, so the election would have to take place at OEWG 1.2 in early 2023.

The EU, the US, and Uruguay, for GRULAC, opposed an election, cautioning that it could set a bad precedent.

Aggarwal-Khan said that based on the objections, the vote would take place at the commencement of OEWG 1.2.

Oumar Diaouré Cisse, Salma Qadoori Jabir, Saqlain Syedah, Linroy Christian, Valentina Sierra, and Michel Tschirren were appointed Vice-Chairs. Cyrus Mageria was appointed as Rapporteur. Aggarwal-Khan invited Vice-Chair Syedah to chair the meeting in the absence of an elected Chair.

Aggarwal-Khan, on behalf of UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen, said this meeting marks the start of an ambitious process that addresses the third pillar of the triple planetary crisis. She said the new panel will help safeguard the fragile planet for future generations. She noted the ever-increasing threats of chemicals, waste, and pollution, adding the new panel is part of the solution to addressing these threats. She called for working across social, economic, and scientific disciplines, including Indigenous knowledge. By all sectors working together, the new panel can be a success that leaves the world cleaner and less polluted.

The World Health Organization (WHO) underscored that chemicals and other environmental risk factors are the cause of chronic health diseases, saying that while much has been done to rectify this, the overall disease burden has not decreased. She said WHO welcomes the initiation of the discussion to look at how an SPP can play its part and explore what WHO’s role will be. She urged using the “Compendium of WHO and other UN guidance on health and environment” as a tool. She recognized the need for a scientific basis for the health effects of chemicals and pollution, but urged collaboration to have a policy-driven approach to address these issues.

Adoption of the Agenda and other Organizational Matters

Vice-Chair Syedah introduced the draft agenda (UNEP/SPP-CWP/OEWG.1(I)/1/1). She noted that the OEWG has been established as a subsidiary organ of the UNEA and, as such, the UNEA rules of procedure will apply.

The EU sought clarification on its participation as a Member State under the UNEA rules of procedure and that the SPP will ultimately develop its own set of rules of procedure.

JAPAN queried whether consensus will be sought first when decisions are taken and whether voting will be used as a last resort.

The RUSSIAN FEDERATION urged adopting the proposed rules of procedure without amendment. The EU stated it was seeking clarity on its participation. The Secretariat confirmed that the EU can participate as a full member, but would not have the right to vote.

The rules of procedure, the agenda, and the organization of work were adopted by consensus.

General Statements

Participants broadly supported the establishment of the SPP. They largely agreed with the proposed length of the process—two years—as well as the proposed clustering of issues.

Colombia, for GRULAC, urged that the SPP contribute to the broader understanding of chemicals and management and wastes. With BRAZIL, he further called for ensuring all three pillars of sustainable development are addressed by the SPP. Supported by ARGENTINA, he called for a more balanced representation of the Global South on the SPP, and for considering the specific needs of these countries. CANADA suggested a diversity of expertise and views will be needed, including that of Indigenous Peoples.

NORWAY stated that the OEWG is a member-driven process and should build on resolution 5/8 on the establishment of an SPP, rather than reopen discussion on elements of the decision.

The EU, with CANADA, INDONESIA, the PHILIPPINES, and SWITZERLAND, supported a panel that will deliver policy-relevant and not policy-prescriptive advice. ARGENTINA said panel outputs must be based on scientific work, not on normative actions.

The US called for a practical SPP with a structure and scope that help countries address important pollution-based issues. The US also expressed concern about the high cost of holding meetings.

SWITZERLAND, with CANADA, JAPAN, and NORWAY, further urged that the SPP learn from similar bodies, namely the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to avoid reinventing the wheel.

SWITZERLAND urged incorporating the health sector to ensure holistic views. CANADA called for a well-defined role for WHO in the OEWG. The DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO said the SPP should avoid duplicating work, and suggested further views on the SPP could be sought through an online questionnaire.

NIGERIA outlined efforts to enhance the science-policy interface internationally. They called for each OEWG session to be preceded by regional coordination sessions, including at OEWG 1.2.

The RUSSIAN FEDERATION reaffirmed its commitment to participating in the process.

The UK noted the panel can strengthen interactions with biodiversity and climate change through engagement with the IPCC and IPBES. She said they support a streamlined, flexible process that can produce tailored reports, which includes an assessment of solutions based on a full spectrum of expertise. INDONESIA said policy decisions informed by science are critically important.

JAPAN called on the SPP to avoid duplication of work and, with the PHILIPPINES, urged developing an agreed understanding of the common terms. BRAZIL suggested the SPP should bridge both gaps in scientific research and capacity gaps in developing countries. Kenya said that building capacity for the sustainable management of chemicals and waste will be paramount.

BRAZIL urged developing effective communication channels to share findings with as broad an audience as possible. FRANCE encouraged working in close collaboration with relevant bodies such as WHO, and the Plastics Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), and announced it was contributing EUR 150,000 in 2022 for the SPP process.

CHINA, OMAN, and SAUDI ARABIA provided an overview of national action to manage chemicals, waste, and pollution. CHINA further said the SPP will help the world to deal better with chemicals and waste management. PERU suggested the SPP support countries in their efforts to implement multilateral environmental agreements and other relevant international agreements.

MALAWI supported the establishment of the SPP to contribute to enhancing the safety of workers among others. SRI LANKA said the management of chemicals and wastes should be done holistically.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury Secretariat expressed their readiness to contribute to the implementation of resolution 5/8 and their willingness to contribute to the work of the panel once it is established. The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) said collaboration with the Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC) partners could be useful for the SPP. The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) Secretariat provided an update on the beyond-2020 process providing the outcomes of the fourth meeting of the intersessional process (IP4), saying stakeholders agreed that the SPP should include participation from all affected constituents and communities, particularly health, labor, and Indigenous Peoples.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) said sound and independent science should be based on the precautionary principle. The MAJOR GROUP FOR CHILDREN AND YOUTH said the SPP should provide scientific evidence as a priority for policymaking and support and consider girls and young women, as they are on the frontlines of the crisis. BUSINESS AND INDUSTRY said that the SPP can elevate chemicals and waste issues in the global arena and provide innovative policy solutions to pressing environmental issues.

INTERNATIONAL METAL STUDY GROUPS said the SPP will be a cohesive, coherent, and collaborative mechanism to serve as a way to reduce pollution, chemicals, and waste, and they will endeavor to contribute to the SPP’s future success. SOCIETY OF ENVIRONMENTAL, TOXICOLOGY AND CHEMISTRY stated multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder processes are a robust way to tackle global challenges in cooperation with other stakeholders. She urged the OEWG to be bold and brave in its decision-making, and “choose the route supported by science.”

CONFLICT AND ENVIRONMENT OBSERVATORY said armed conflicts generate pollution and can create pollution practices that go unchecked, noting the SPP can contribute to encouraging research into the health and ecological effects of conflict pollution and called on it to address conflict pollution and the toxic remnants of war.

ROYAL SOCIETY OF CHEMISTRY called for the SPP to be an effective, efficient, cooperative, transparent interface into which science can be “fed.” GLOBAL ALLIANCE ON HEALTH AND POLLUTION and PURE EARTH called for the OEWG to prepare ambitious and practical proposals for the SPP. She said affordable policy solutions to tackle air pollution are often lacking and using the SPP to find these should be a priority. She suggested cooperation with the UNEP International Resource Panel (IRP).

HAZARDOUS WASTE EUROPE said the SPP will allow people to come back to operating within the confines of planetary boundaries. ECOLOGICAL RESTORATIONS called for more consultation and collaboration among all stakeholders to understand the links between science and policymaking.

HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENT JUSTICE SUPPORT said the SPP should not be undermined by economic and commercial interests, and conflicts of interest should be avoided. She said the organization expects transparency and the full inclusion of all stakeholders.

Closing the discussion, Vice-Chair Syedah noted strong general support for the SPP, saying it is also clear where there are areas of common understanding and where more work will be needed.

Options for the Timetable and Organization of Work of the OEWG

Vice-Chair Syedah introduced this agenda item. The UNEP/OEWG Secretariat provided an overview of the proposed timetable for the work of the OEWG, noting that intersessional work such as stakeholder and regional consultations will leverage other forums taking place. Noting that OEWG 1.2 and OEWG 2 will take place in 2023, and OEWG 3 will take place in 2024, he said the process will culminate in an intergovernmental meeting, tentatively scheduled for late 2024/early 2025 where the proposals for the SPP will be considered.

The EU supported the proposed timeline, but questioned whether intersessional work and regional consultations are necessary.

The US, supported by SWITZERLAND, questioned the conference services fees, saying similar processes have service fees that are approximately 40% less.

The UNEP/OEWG Secretariat stated they have provided the fees quoted by conference services. On the preparation of documents, they said they will ensure sufficient time for input, editing, and translation, noting that at this stage the meeting documents are likely to be quite short.

The UK called on parties to support the OEWG where possible and encouraged hybrid modalities for the smaller regional meetings.

SWITZERLAND stressed that if IPCC and IPBES serve as potential models, three meetings of the OEWG will be sufficient to detail all the elements required.

NIGERIA expressed reservation with the number of sessions, suggesting that a fourth session be held so that work can be completed without undue time pressure

NORWAY supported the conclusion of the negotiations by 2024, expressing reservations that the intergovernmental meeting would take place in 2025.

JAPAN supported hybrid formats for all meetings and the inclusion of all stakeholders as the scope is yet to be defined. He urged collating and analyzing views on the terms “chemicals,” “wastes” and “pollution.” The UNEP/OEWG Secretariat cautioned on the cost of fully hybrid meetings, saying that in discussion with other processes it became apparent that the cost of a fully hybrid meeting is extremely high. He said OEWG 1.2 will have streaming of the sessions, but will not allow for full interaction. He agreed that form must follow function and noted the need to map the interface of science and policy with partners and other similar bodies. He said they have started this process and welcome Member States’ input. 

The MAJOR GROUP FOR CHILDREN AND YOUTH welcomed the establishment of the SPP and applauded the progress made thus far, urging the use of this opportunity to create a toxic-free future for children.

Vice-Chair Syedah closed this agenda item, stating there is general support for the number of OEWG sessions to be held but also stated that there is a need to reach an agreement on how the OEWG will achieve the specific aspects of its mandate.

Preparation of Proposals for the Establishment of an SPP

Vice-Chair Syedah introduced this agenda item. The UNEP/OEWG Secretariat informed participants of the proposed documents for discussion at OEWG 1.2. He stated that the documents being prepared for the resumed session include:

  • provisional agenda;
  • annotated provisional agenda;
  • options for the name and scope of the SPP on chemicals, waste, and pollution;
  • options for the principal functions, operating principles, and institutional arrangements;
  • options for the SPP rules and policies/procedures; and
  • work timetable and budget for the Secretariat.

He said common understandings of chemicals, waste, and pollution are crucial as they will inform the functions and scope of the work that the SPP will be undertaking. On options for rules and procedures, he said they will reflect on views of other similar bodies to maximize lessons learned and be incorporated into the rules and procedures for the SPP. He also noted that other bodies don’t conduct horizon scanning, which is a very “loose” process, and rules and procedures, and boundaries for such a process, must be set.

He said the aim is to produce three substantive documents by early November, and they will undertake to make the advanced English versions of the documents available as soon as they have been edited. He noted that the December break will disrupt processes, but they are working to ameliorate this as much as possible. He said the documents will be made available in all six UN languages in January 2023. He said they will also provide a more detailed work timetable and budget for the Secretariat, including the future viability of the process.

THAILAND proposed more input for the key elements from Member States and stakeholders on the foundational documents of the SPP, such as definitions.

The EU and the US stressed that form should follow function, so addressing the name in the initial considerations of the OEWG would be premature. BRAZIL urged the discussions should include support for the conduct of science by developing country experts as this will contribute to the legitimacy and efficacy of the panel.

SAUDI ARABIA suggested including lessons learned from other bodies for discussion at OEWG 1.2.

The US suggested a stepwise approach that would conclude discussions on function and scope, and then turn to institutional arrangements and procedures. If such an approach was followed, she said, several of the proposed documents for OEWG 1.2 may not be necessary. She said a mapping process of the institutional landscape on the scope and similarly on functions is necessary to understand where the gaps are so that scope and functions can be developed so that they are complementary and non-duplicative. She stated this stepwise approach may be more efficient than trying to resolve several issues in parallel.

The Secretariat stated that there will be a greater focus on function and scope, and those documents will be considerably larger than others. He said that they are anticipating that large proportions of the rules of procedure from other bodies can be “rubber stamped” so that issues such as horizon scanning can be properly considered, which is why they will be addressed at OEWG 1.2.

The US reiterated that several strong Member State views run contradictory to the outline presented by the Secretariat. She said that as a Member State-driven process, these views need to be strongly considered, underscoring that doing everything at once may not be the best way to get to the end.

SWITZERLAND, with the EU and JAPAN, supported using a stepwise approach for the deliberations of the OEWG, where issues on function and scope are first considered. SWITZERLAND further urged for a large scope, saying that does not mean all potential topics need to be addressed. He said the work programme and budget must be considered at the first intergovernmental meeting.

CHINA suggested that, when preparing the relevant documents, other conventions should be considered, including the connections and relationships between them to avoid duplication, and said that a future SPP may need to establish a subsidiary panel to have dedicated work on different topics.

PLANT-FOR-THE-PLANET FOUNDATION called for developing targeted processes early on to engage those communities that are most affected, said they must be specifically invited to engage with the panel, and suggested the OEWG look to IPBES and IPCC on how to engage children and youth.

Adoption of the Report of the Session

Vice-Chair Syedah introduced this agenda item. The Rapporteur, Cyrus Mageria, presented the report of the meeting (UNEP/SPP-CWP/OEWG.1(I)/L.1). He reminded participants that it does not contain summaries of the statements made and other discussions, and this will be completed and finalized at a later date in cooperation with the Secretariat.

The report was adopted.

Closure of the Session

Vice-Chair Syedah thanked the Government of Kenya and the United Nations Office at Nairobi for hosting the meeting, and those Member States for providing funding support. She lauded delegates for their engagement.

The MAJOR GROUP FOR CHILDREN AND YOUTH applauded the constructive discussions that had taken place and called for dedicated funding for Children and Youth to participate in OEWG 1.2.

The US highlighted three main themes from Member States: an interest in a stepwise process; concern regarding the costs of this process; and transparency in the process. She called for a narrower agenda for OEWG 1.2 so that concomitant meeting costs are lowered and can thus be reallocated to other areas of work.

The meeting was adjourned at 4:49 pm.

A Brief Analysis of OEWG 1.1

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. ~ Louis Sullivan

The first segment of the first meeting of the ad hoc Open-ended Working Group on a science-policy-panel (SPP) to Contribute Further to the Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste and to Prevent Pollution (OEWG 1.1) considered proposals for a new SPP to contribute further to the sound management of chemicals and waste and prevention of pollution. The short day-long meeting kickstarted the process, which is expected to conclude with an intergovernmental meeting in late 2024 to establish the new SPP. This meeting provided the opportunity for Member States and other stakeholders to put forward their views on what the OEWG process should look like, and secondly, what the SPP should look like broadly—lean, flexible, and policy-relevant.

This brief analysis examines the outcomes of these discussions and how they set the stage for discussions at the second segment of OEWG 1 early next year.

Form Ever Follows Function

Much of the discussion throughout the day focused on how to go about the SPP negotiations. Should future meetings of the OEWG focus on the form of the SPP and relevant policies and procedures in parallel to discussions on the function of the SPP? Or rather, should they first consider the function and scope of the SPP before turning to more procedural issues? Outlining the proposed workflow for OEWG 1.2, scheduled to take place in January-February 2023, there was a proposal from the Secretariat that aspects of form could be considered in parallel to function, such as some aspects of the SPP’s rules of procedure.

There was a general consensus among Member States that the scope and function of the SPP should be addressed first, while the form, policies and procedures should be dealt with second. Many argued that form is important, but determining the function of the SPP would then easily lead into what form the SPP should take. Moreover, the rules and procedures necessary for the smooth functioning of the SPP would naturally be determined by the form it takes.

Conversely, the Secretariat argued, as there are two science-policy panels already in operation, many of the policies and procedures could be “rubber stamped” to avoid “reinventing the wheel,” thus freeing up valuable time to talk about more complex issues of function and scope of the SPP. Participants, however, favored the stepwise approach of dealing with one issue at a time, with one Member State going so far as to say a parallel approach could be inefficient and potentially use more time than it frees up. As there was no conclusion to the discussion, it remains to be seen in what form the discussions will take at OEWG 1.2.

Does Form Follow Finance?

Another stumbling block emerged during the discussions, which could impact deliberations at OEWG 1.2. In its resolution 5/8, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) called for a two-year-long process to prepare proposals for the SPP. To this end, the Secretariat proposed three meetings of the OEWG followed by a final intergovernmental meeting to decide on the SPP. Member States generally welcomed the schedule but, as many noted, there are costs involved. The indicative meeting costs were considered quite high when compared to other similar meetings. Fully hybrid formats, requested by some Member States, would increase costs even more.

There is also a cost to undertaking the mapping exercises and other preparatory work needed to prepare the documents ahead of OEWG 1.2, in addition to preparing, editing, and translating the working documents in advance of the meeting. The OEWG process is, however, funded by voluntary contributions. So, to paraphrase the journalist Ira Flatow, does form follow finances instead of function?

One proposal, harking back to discussions on whether to use a parallel or a stepwise approach to deliberations, suggested that using a stepwise approach is more cost-effective. The reasoning is that there would be fewer documents to prepare, which would result in freeing up funds that could be used elsewhere. As some delegations called for lean and flexible SPP, one observer commented that the OEWG process would also need to be lean and flexible to fulfill its mandate within the required time frame.

A Firm Footing for the Future

OEWG 1.1 was a constructive, albeit short, meeting that put the process on a firm footing for the rest of the two-year process. The debates on how the process should use both time and funds efficiently were not resolved, and given that the meeting was only one day, this was to be expected. However, the generally positive and constructive nature of the deliberations indicates that with a little more time, these early stumbling blocks can be overcome so that a lean and flexible SPP can emerge from a lean and flexible OEWG.

Further information