The Journey to International Environmental Policy Starts with a Single Step

UConn Marine Sciences Professor Penny Vlahos discusses her recent experience on a global panel charged with making recommendations to policymakers about pollutants.

Penny Vlahos, assistant professor of Marine Sciences.

In the 1980s and 90s, concern about the destruction of the ozone layer was a topic on everyone’s mind. The international community rallied around the issue and the Montreal Protocol of 1987 was created to tackle the problem. As a result, the compounds causing ozone destruction, chlorofluorocarbons (called CFCs for short), were phased out. Since then, other international efforts have been undertaken to face other environmental crises, such as the Paris Agreement, the Rio Summit, and the Minamata Convention.

In the midst of the world-wide health crisis that is the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers continue forging ahead to identify steps to be taken to continue combating environmental threats and pollutants. Penny Vlahos, associate professor of Marine Sciences at UConn, recently served on the scientific advisory panel for the International Panel on Chemical Pollution to advise United Nations policymakers on issues related to emerging environmental contaminants and pollution. The meeting was originally scheduled to be held in Zurich, Switzerland, but in light of the pandemic, was held virtually instead.

The path towards a protocol, treaty, or agreement – especially one like the universally ratified Montreal Protocol – can be a long and complex one. Vlahos shared her experience with UConn Today about some of the steps necessary to set plans into motion for tackling some of the world’s biggest environmental issues.

Is this the first time you have served on this committee?

I’m advising the Global Environmental Facility, or GEF, through the IPCP. The Global Environmental Fund was created in 1992 and is the financial mechanism for implementing several conventions. GEF funds are available “to developing countries and countries with economies in transition to meet the objectives of the international environmental conventions and agreements.”

I have served on the IPCP for several years as the auditor and they were given the contract from the GEF to do this project. So that is how I got involved with this meeting. The goal is to make the recommendations to the GEF on how they can prioritize proposals from UN member states that seek support for projects that are aimed at meeting the goals of both protocols and conventions. These include the Montreal Protocol, the Stockholm Convention, the Minamata Convention, and the Paris Agreement.

This meeting was based on a grant from the GEF to the IPCP to help objectively prioritize existing and emerging concerns related to these agreements. A report will be prepared and presented to the GEF later this year.

What were some of the recommendations that came out of the meeting?

One major priority was to support technology transfer for greener ways of doing things. For instance, you can’t expect mining companies to stop using mercury for mining gold if you don’t give the companies alternative technology to mine without using mercury. Unfortunately, the current alternative method uses cyanide, though less toxic approaches have recently shown promise.

Another major priority identified was the lack of monitoring networks for some target compounds. Some areas do a much better job of monitoring than others. Additionally, we recommended developing more source-flow diagrams to track demand, as well as supply to better understand release of priority substances.

Creating a calculator for funded states to assess the effectiveness of their projects is also underway as better epidemiological tools are now available. For example, we discussed emphasizing human health as a benefit and priority. We have a lot of calculators that have been created to calculate human health risk. For instance there are calculators looking at air quality between Connecticut and New York. We asked to formalize the use of calculators so they can use these before and after policies are implemented to assess if what they did worked.

Another topic that was covered was, we proposed that governments have someone permanent who will oversee projects. Currently, efforts are challenged because of the nature of changing administrations that may be less vested in the previous administration’s priorities, or even undermine them. We have seen that happen here in the US. There has to be some way to prove longevity and ensure that there is a champion for these projects despite government turnover.

Can you talk about little bit about the different conventions and protocols? Do subsequent protocols build on one another?

That’s the goal, that new protocols build on previous ones as new priorities are identified. For instance with the Montreal Protocol, there have been complaints that it was too focused on CFCs. The problem is we have numerous substitutes for CFCs that are also a problem for the ozone layer. They may not last as long in the atmosphere, but they are still a concern and regulating these requires starting from point A again.

As it stands right now, for a protocol to be established, there has to be undeniable proof of how bad they are. Often there is evidence, however, like so many other substances there is pushback from producers that delays progress.  With CFCs it took 20 years to prove how they were impacting the ozone layer and get consensus.

At the meeting, was there mention of other compounds that should be focused on in future protocols?

The big ones were microplastics, trace metals such as lead, and N20. These are all concerning, emerging pollutants but in terms of policy making, we are stuck to focusing on the pollutants in the existing protocols.

N2O is a concern because it is almost 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Worldwide, nitrogen fertilizers are overused, leading to the release of large quantities of N2O in the atmosphere. I can see that being the focus of another international meeting and a global effort. Though beyond the scope of this meeting, these conventions are also the way one would expect global pandemic strategies to be addressed.

What is the process like to convene an international meeting of that nature?

To call a meeting, there needs to be a lot of scientific backing and proof that something is a serious problem for the countries to come together and agree on the problem. Then everyone has to have a strategy for how they are going to address the problem. Each country then sets 5 to 10 year targets of what they are going to do to address the problem; meanwhile, everyone meets again every two to three years to track progress and see if targets are being met.


To learn more about the Global Environmental Facility or the International Panel on Chemical Pollution, click on the links to visit their webpages or follow them on social media.