Minamata Convention on Mercury

About the Minamata Convention on Mercury

Since 2008, New Zealand has been taking part in negotiations to develop an international agreement on mercury under the umbrella of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) [United Nations Environment Programme website].

The Minamata Convention on Mercury was concluded in January 2013, and New Zealand signed the Convention in Japan on 10 October 2013. The next step is for New Zealand to ratify the Convention, which would make it binding on New Zealand.

Why an international agreement on mercury?

Mercury is a highly toxic substance, which has serious effects on human health and on the environment.

It can cause harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and may be fatal. It can also cause neurological and behavioural disorders, and symptoms such as insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches, and cognitive and motor dysfunction. The harmful effects can be transferred from a mother to her unborn child. Infants, children and women of childbearing age are therefore particularly at risk.

The presence of mercury in the environment is a global problem, as mercury can readily enter and be widely transported through the atmosphere, oceans and the food chain. It accumulates in the food chain, and consuming food with mercury in it is a major source of exposure to mercury for both people and some animals.

Mercury is released both through natural sources such as volcanic and geothermal activity, and through human activity, such as industrial processes (e.g. cement and steel manufacturing; some forms of power generation) and waste disposal (e.g. disposal of electronic equipment containing mercury, including some batteries and lighting equipment).

What does the Convention do?

The Convention addresses the direct mining of mercury, export and import of the metal, mercury emissions from some industrial activities, artisanal gold mining that uses mercury, significant releases to land and water, safe storage, contaminated sites and waste mercury. Natural emissions from sources such as geothermal activities are not part of the Convention.

Signing the Convention does not create obligations on New Zealand. The Convention will enter into force when 50 states have ratified the Convention. This is expected to occur in 2016 or 2017.

For more information on the text of the Convention, please see the Minamata Convention on Mercury website [Minamata Convention on Mercury website].

What is New Zealand’s interest?

New Zealand’s interests are:

  • the protection of human health and the environment from the harmful effects of exposure to mercury
  • reduction of mercury emissions from human activity.

This does not necessarily involve the total elimination of mercury.

What is New Zealand’s situation?

The Ministry for the Environment commissioned mercury inventories in 2008 and 2012. These inventories provide details of both natural and anthropogenic sources of mercury.

New Zealand differs from many other countries in having significant natural emissions of mercury from geothermal and volcanic activity. These emissions are not part of the Convention.
Work has also been undertaken to address various waste management issues, including mercury. Some of these resources are shown below.

What’s next?

New Zealand’s ratification of the Minamata Convention would be subject to the normal treaty making process [Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade website]. New Zealand is gathering more information from trading partners about when changes in products could be expected to occur.

A National Interest Analysis (NIA) has been submitted to Parliament for the treaty examination process. Download a copy of the NIA [PDF, 191 KB]

A public consultation process will be undertaken during the treaty making process.