Pollution is the third largest threat to the planet, behind climate change and biodiversity loss

01 September 2023

Ray Parmenter, Head of Technical and Policy 

United Nations – Science-Policy Panel (SPP) on Chemicals, Waste and Pollution


In March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) at its resumed 5th session decided that a Science-Policy Panel (UN-SPP) should be established to contribute further to the "sound management of chemicals and waste, and to prevent pollution". Through its resolution 5/8 , UNEA further decided to convene an ad hoc open-ended working group (OEWG) to prepare proposals for the UN-SPP, with the ambition of submitting a formal proposal by the end of 2024.

This is indeed an ambitious challenge, given that it reportedly took twelve years to establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and seven years to establish the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

So far the OEWG has officially met once, albeit in two parts spanning October 2022 and February 2023, and a second OEWG meeting is planned for December 2023, with a third meeting planned for June 2024.

The UN-SPP is not fully formed as yet, but the ambition by the UN is to have it up and running in two years, and in an effort to speed up this process the OEWG will look towards similar UN panels for inspiration. 

It is highly likely that the OEWG will propose an operational model similar to the way IPBES works, with some adaptations to suit the needs of the UN-SPP, as this seems to reflect the way the UN wishes such bodies to work in future. 

The IPBES model is formed of a Plenary, which is the main decision making body and consists of the representatives of member states. There is also a Bureau that oversees the administrative functions and that is supported by a Technical Support Unit. A Multidisciplinary Expert Panel (MEP) oversees the scientific functions, which is regionally balanced and consists of the Plenary Chair and four vice-Chairs along with twenty five scientists, five from each of the five UN regions. When required, time-bound task forces will be established by the Plenary to consider specific issues. 
For more information about the workings of IPBES see IPBES - An Introduction for Stakeholders.

How might the IPBES model be adapted for a UN-SPP?

Given the potential scope of the UN-SPP’s work limiting the number of MEPs to just twenty five scientist may not provide the optimal solution, considering the wide ranging and complex issues the UN-SPP will need to tackle (i.e. Waste, Chemicals and Pollution). In my opinion a possible solution to this MEP representation conundrum could be to have three subject focussed MEPs per region, which could be made of up three to five scientist per subject area. This would afford the possibility of addressing regional differences, especially in global waste management practice.

It is important I feel to include a wide range of stakeholders in the workings of the UN-SPP, drawing on the expertise from academia, institutions, industry and NGOs etc, but it will be vital that the UN-SPP has a firm conflicts of interest policy. A potential model for this could be: Conflict of interest policy and implementation procedures | IPBES secretariat

With so many voices potentially around the table contrary/ conflicting views will be common and a thorny issue to deal with for the UN-SPP. Therefore I believe that there should be a clear and transparent processes for dealing with opposing views, which balances both sides of the argument; easier said than done I suspect.

The UN-SPP is unlikely to be financed directly from the UN purse, as it will not be set up under a binding convention (e.g. Stockholm, Basel etc.). Instead, the UN-SPP will (like IPBES) be funded by donations. This potentially raises a whole host of issues around conflicts of interest, and something that I believe the OEWG will need to consider incorporating into that policy instrument.
How is CIWM engaging with the UN-SPP?

It is possible for the CIWM to engage directly with the OEWG and potentially the UN-SPP once it has been formed, but there is a complex UN gateway to negotiate, which for now is probably not the best use of our limited resources. 

The CIWM Policy and Technical team has up until now been engaging directly with the Defra team who are responsible for the UK negotiations at the OEWG. We have also been working closely with other likeminded organisations, such as the Royal Society of Chemistry, ISWA, as well as academics, industry and other institutions. 

Scientific expertise, especially in the field of resources and waste management, will be central to the success of the UN-SPP, and I have been assured by Defra that they would seek expert advice from institutions, as well as sending out an open ‘call’ for experts. With that in mind I believe it is important that CIWM has a voice and establishes its own panel of ‘experts’ as soon as possible; enabling any call from Defra for their upcoming OEWG meeting in December to be answered. So if you are interested in joining our panel of experts please get in touch with me directly at: ray.parmenter@ciwm.co.uk .
In Conclusion

This is an important piece of work, and one that will put chemicals, waste and pollution issues on a par with climate change and biodiversity loss. It will I feel, be a forum that will ultimately help to lead to a world beyond waste, perhaps not for me but for my children and their children, we shall see.

More information on the OEWG and the UN-SPP can be found at: Ad hoc open-ended working group on a science-policy panel on chemicals, waste and pollution prevention | UNEP - UN Environment Programme.