Skip to content ↓

Students witness science policy in action

MIT students participate in the final mercury talks resulting in an international treaty.
Noelle Selin and students answered questions from the audience during the Feb. 6 panel discussion.
Noelle Selin and students answered questions from the audience during the Feb. 6 panel discussion.
Photo: Alli Gold

Last month, the United Nations Environment Programme agreed on the first major environmental treaty in over a decade, with a focus on reducing mercury pollution. In attendance at the event in Geneva, Switzerland were 10 MIT students and their instructor Noelle Selin, a researcher with the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and an assistant professor of atmospheric chemistry and engineering systems.

The group had UN observer status and was able to attend all of the negotiations, breakout sessions and meetings. The students also revealed their latest scientific information about mercury through a poster presentation, and shared their experiences and observations via a blog and Twitter feed.

Back on the MIT campus, Selin and the students hosted a panel discussion on Feb. 6 in which they shared their experiences and lessons learned from witnessing international environmental policy-making in action.

Selin kicked off the event by describing the problem of mercury pollution and why an international treaty was essential to curbing the environmental and public health effects.  She explained that mercury levels in the Earth have increased greatly due to the burning of fossil fuels, cement production and more. Mercury then rains down into oceans, where it contaminates fish as toxic methylmercury.

“The health risks to consumers of fish include neurological effects, particularly in the offspring of exposed pregnant women,” Selin explained. “Over 300,000 newborns in the U.S. each year are at risk of learning disabilities due to their elevated mercury exposure.”

Mercury is an element that cycles in the environment, meaning that once it’s released into the atmosphere it can take decades to centuries for mercury to make its way back to ocean sediments.

“This becomes a global issue, this becomes a long term issue, and thus an issue for international cooperation,” Selin said.   

During the trip, five student teams covered topics including governing institutions, products and processes, emissions, waste/trade/mining, and finance. A member from each team gave a presentation at the Feb. 6 panel and shared thoughts and observations on the international negotiation process.

Philip Wolfe, a PhD candidate in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, discussed the institutions and policy process of the negotiations. He explained that the treaty has to work on two levels: globally and domestically.

“Individual countries engage in regional, domestic or bilateral agreements and they’ll only really sign on to a global convention if it also meets their own domestic goals,” Wolfe said.

The treaty, if nations decide to sign it, would require tightly controlling emissions — a major area of discussion during the negotiations.

Leah Stokes, PhD candidate in environmental policy and planning, discussed the challenges with regulating emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and artisanal small-scale gold mining. She explained that when individuals want to mine gold and don’t have any equipment, they use mercury because it binds with gold. When burned together, the mercury burns first, leaving gold behind. This process is estimated by the United Nations to be the largest global contributor of mercury emissions.

“We also come into contact with mercury through a lot of the products we use,” explained Ellen Czaika, a PhD candidate in the Engineering Systems Division.

Examples of products with mercury that will be phased out under the treaty include some types of compact fluorescent light blubs, dental fillings, pesticides, thermometers and batteries. There were important discussions at the conference about weighing the benefits of some of these products versus their mercury risks, Czaika said.

Mercury mining is another source of concern, and a major piece of the treaty. Danya Rumore, a PhD student in environmental policy and planning, explained that this was expected to be a big area of contention, but an agreement was reached that gave time for a ban to come into effect over a 15-year period.

Julie van der Hoop, a PhD student in the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Joint Program, followed financial and technical assistance issues at the negotiations. She discussed how the strength and effectiveness of the treaty will be shown through the technology transfer programs, a new funding mechanism for developing nations and implementation plans.

Ultimately, she said, “We’re looking for a treaty to be effective… If you make a treaty and it’s not effective then what’s the point?”

Many of the panelists said that the treaty has relatively weak requirements, but that this is still a historic and impactful international environmental treaty. Selin recognized that it had to be an agreement that all 140 countries would be able to sign on to and that any limits on mercury will have long-term impacts because of the nature of the mercury cycle.

“This isn’t a thing that ends today,” Stokes said. “This is just something that keeps going and going and going. Even though we have a treaty — really, we’re going to decide everything [about implementation] at the next meeting.”

The students attended the conference as part of a National Science Foundation grant that aims to train a cohort of graduate students for science policy leadership through a semester-long course and an intensive policy engagement exercise.

Related Links

Related Topics

More MIT News