On January 19, after all-night negotiations that concluded a week of talks in Geneva, representatives from more than 140 nations agreed on a new treaty to address mercury pollution. Negotiations were launched in 2009 after the new Obama administration reversed long-standing U.S. opposition to such a treaty and China and India quickly followed suit. While some environmentalists are disappointed that the provisions of the treaty are not stronger, officials from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) view it as a useful first step at a time when multilateral environmental agreements have been few and far between. The treaty does not require countries to develop national plans for controlling all mercury emissions, but it does call for restrictions or bans on the use of mercury in certain products. The treaty will be signed in a ceremony later this year in Minimata, Japan, the small fishing village where mercury discharges into water during the 1950s and 1960s caused severe neurological damage in children and led to more than 1,700 deaths. The treaty will be known as the Minimata Convention, even though it would not have prevented the Minimata tragedy because it does not limit mercury discharges to water. John Heilprin, More Than 140 Nations Adopt Treaty to Cut Mercury Emissions, Washington Post, Jan. 20, 2013, at A5. The treaty will enter into force when 50 nations have ratified it, which is expected to occur within three or four years. Within three years of the treaty entering into force nations will be required to have plans to reduce or eliminate mercury use in small-scale gold mining operations, a major source of mercury use. Environmentalists hope that future negotiations will strengthen the treaty.
Pollution problems in northern China have become so severe that the Chinese government has decided that it should not censor media and internet discussion of them. Edward Wong of the New York Times reports that on a single day last week there were 6.9 million mentions of “Beijing air” and 6.7 million mentions of “air quality” on a popular microblog. Edward Wong, In China, Widening Discontent Among the Communist Party Faithful, N.Y. Times, Jan. 20, 2013, at A6. Horrendous air pollution in Beijing (see Jan 14, 2013 blog post) led outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to criticize the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection and its leader Zhou Shengxian. On January 15 incoming prime minister Li Keqiang stated that solving the country’s environmental problems would be a long process. Guangzhou’s Southern Weekend magazine, which sparked public protests earlier this year over attempted censorship of its New Year’s Day message, published an expose by two water safety officials revealing that they had not used tap water for decades because of the contaminants in it. This has sparked further public discussion of water quality issues, though it has been known for years that tap water is not safe to drink even in the poshest Chinese hotels.
To combat a surge of poaching Kenyan wildlife reserves plan to deploy drone aircraft to monitor animal herds. The drones are not armed but they are equipped with thermal imaging technology that allows them to monitor wildlife even after dark. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga reports that 360 elephants were killed in his country last year due to high demand for ivory that fetches $1,000 per pound in Asia. James Reini, Anti-Poaching Drones to Take Off in Africa, Aljazeera, Jan. 20, 2013. Several rangers and poachers have been killed in shootouts in Africa recently. Last month Google gave the World Wildlife Fund $5 million to purchase drone aircraft that will be used to combat poaching in two African and two Asian wildlife reserves. South African officials report that a record 668 rhinos were killed in that country in 2012. Rhino horns now sell for $30,000 per pound on the black market. Veterinarians in South Africa are now learning how to treat rhinos injured by poachers. Christopher Torchia, South Africa Vets Struggling to Treat Survivors of Rhino Poaching, Wash. Post, Jan. 20, 2013, at A19.
The spring semester at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law started last week. This semester I am teaching a seminar on Global Environmental Law. Student interest in the subject has been so great that I have nearly doubled the size of the seminar to 34, but it still has a wait list. For the first class on January 16 Julie Weisman, who works with the Water Resources Action Project (http://www.wrapdc.org) -- a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that works on water issues in the Middle East, conducted a roleplay involving a transboundary dispute over water resources.
As part of the inaugural weekend festivities in the nation’s capital, today my wife and I attended an excellent Executive Briefing sponsored by the law firm of Skadden Arps. It featured conversations with Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007-2011, and investigative journalist Bob Woodward. Mullen, who helped direct the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, was asked whether he thought the Pakistani government knew where bin Laden had been living. While stating that he had seen no “smoking gun” proving that Pakistani government officials knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts, he noted that it was hard to believe none of them knew. Mullen noted that he made the call to inform General Ashfaq Kiyani, head of the Pakistani Army, that the raid had occurred. When told where bin Laden had been living for the last five years, “Kiyani seemed shocked.” But Mullen noted that it was not clear whether he was shocked that bin Laden lived there or that the U.S. had discovered it.
At lunch we sat with former Congressman Jim Oberstar, who had been chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee when I testified before it in July 2007 on a bill to clarify federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction. Oberstar is now working on efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay. After lunch Bob Woodward stated that the Washington Post had approached the leaders of Google about forming a partnership to provide better news coverage of climate change, but that Google rejected the idea on the grounds that it did not want to become a content provider.