The scientific road towards international environmental policy

Research notes:

Many environmental problems are global in character and must be resolved through joint international efforts. Examples include climate change, long-range transported environmental pollutants and plastic. Sound environmental policy-making to address transboundary pollution needs scientific backing.

Studying mercury in freshwater fish. Fieldwork at Jarfjordfjellet, Sør-Varanger, Norway.
Photo: Guttorm Christensen / Akvaplan-niva

By: Trude Borch // Akvaplan-niva. Froukje Maria Platjouw and Eirik H. Steindal // Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA)

The road from science to policy-making is often winding and it can take time from scientific findings on an environmental problem to the implementation of environmental policy. One important success factor in this process is making scientific findings accessible and understandable to actors outside the science community.

Science and international policy-making

Over the last four decades, nations have negotiated hundreds of bilateral and multilateral agreements to address transnational environmental problems. The role that nations play in such negotiations differs with national economic, political and scientific resources. Scientists in every country mainly share scientific resources with other scientists by publishing their findings in peer-reviewed journals. But recent years have seen an increased focus on the need for popular dissemination and public outreach, and on the importance of providing advice to policy-makers.

Large-scale international scientific assessments have also become a more common way of informing policy-making. Global environmental assessments (GEAs) are formal efforts to assemble selected knowledge to make it useful for decision-making. This objective highlights the importance of organising such assessments in ways that make it easy to identify products, participants, responsible authorities and the effects of an environmental problem on ecosystems and human health.

GEAs mainly focus only on summarising and ensuring the quality of existing research, but they may also involve conducting new research. The national actors in the production and utilisation of GEAs in negotiation processes often include government agencies, private corporations, research institutions and NGOs.

The Minamata Convention

The World Health Organization lists mercury among the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals of public health concern, and we have recently studied the process towards a global legally binding instrument on mercury: the 2013 Minamata Convention.

Despite many years of scientific consensus on the toxic effects and long-range transportation of mercury, it took a long time to establish a global, legally binding convention to regulate the contaminant. The first initiative towards international action on the mercury problem came in 2003, but it took six more years before the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) agreed to start developing a legally binding approach (in 2009).

Mercury in the Arctic

Due to its geography, climate and ecology, the Arctic is strongly impacted by the adverse effects of mercury pollution. As a result, research showing negative effects on human health and the environment in the Arctic was a key driver behind the initiative to set up the Minamata Convention. In our project on the Convention, led by NIVA and financed by the Fram Centre, we have analysed the science-policy interface on the road towards the adoption of the Minamata Convention, and the positions and roles of Norway and Canada in the Minamata process.

The project concludes that the Arctic Council played an important role as a knowledge provider in the process leading up to the Minamata Convention. In a recent publication, we describe how this was particularly true of a working group within the Arctic Council – the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme – which was heavily involved as a “science broker”, providing scientific assessments to back political decision-making in the negotiations. Both the Arctic Council and the Nordic Council also played important roles in research financing.

Canada and Norway

Our project also examined the positions and roles of Canada and Norway in the scientific production, preparations, and alliance building in the UNEP negotiations, as well as their main arguments.

Our project also examined the positions and roles of Canada and Norway in the scientific production, preparations, and alliance building in the UNEP negotiations, as well as their main arguments. The data for this study were collected through literature review and interviews with the leaders and delegates from the two countries. The delegations included representatives from government agencies and research institutes; the Canadian delegation also included an indigenous NGO. We found that both countries provided essential contributions to the realisation of the convention, though in different ways and at different phases of the process.

Whereas Canada and Norway are both receivers of long-range transported mercury pollution from other countries, their respective pollution history differs. Being an industrial country with a population of 37 million and a large mining industry, Canada has substantially higher national emissions and releases of mercury than Norway (with a population of approximately 5 million). Like other countries with an economically significant mining industry, Canada was in a bit of a bind. The Canadian government wished to reduce national emissions but also wanted to avoid putting overly strict regulations on their mining industry. Nonetheless, Canada made significant reductions in mercury emissions during the 1990s, as did Norway. As a substantial part of the mercury deposited in these countries originates from sources outside their respective boundaries, they both realised that further substantial reductions could only be achieved through international regulations.

However, Canada (along with Australia, the US, Japan and Russia) was initially against a legally binding agreement on mercury and argued for a voluntary solution. The main reason for opposition to such an agreement was concern about yet another resource-demanding negotiation procedure on chemicals. Norway, on the other hand, was in favour of a legally binding agreement and, together with Switzerland, proposed to start negotiating an agreement at the UNEP Governing Council meeting in 2003. Later, in 2009, Canada changed its view when the US changed its position on a legally binding agreement at the start of the Obama administration.


Both Norwegian and Canadian input was central in the scientific research revealing that mercury travelled long distances from its original sources and into the Arctic. In Canada, mercury studies in the Arctic were led by the government’s Northern Contaminants Program. This programme also helped fund and build the capacity of an Arctic indigenous organisation, the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). As a result, ICC was able to put efforts into mercury and help inform the negotiation process. It is clear from statements made by the Canadian Government that its principal concern in the negotiations was to protect the indigenous population and biota in the Arctic from mercury pollution. The environment and human health in the Arctic were also major concerns for Norway; however, the national stance on the convention was also motivated by scientific findings of high levels of mercury in freshwater fish of high food value in other parts of the country.

From our study, we conclude that the following are important for a nation to succeed in an international environmental policy process:

1) having a sound scientific foundation and communicating this in ways that non-experts can understand
2) including experts among the delegates in negotiations; 3) having well-prepared position documents
4) having strong national backing from government, industry and NGO
5) having a negotiation team with the will and skill to compromise and build alliances.


Trude Borch // Akvaplan-niva

Froukje Maria Platjouw* and Eirik H. Steindal // Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA)


The project was financed by the Fram Centre Flagship “Hazardous substances – effects on ecosystems and human health”

Further reading:

Platjouw F, Steindal EH, Borch T (2018) From arctic science to international law: the road towards the Minamata Convention and the role of the Arctic Council. Arctic Review on Law and Politics 9: 226-243