• English

How can PRTRs help achieve the SDGs?

Every day there are hazardous chemical substances released into the environment from industrial or agricultural sites that can affect our daily lives. Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs) help to effectively record these pollutants and make this information accessible to the public. But PRTRs are not static inventories; they are dynamic systems. They need to be steadily improved, both at the national and multilateral levels.

Under the leadership of Japan and Sweden, Governments and stakeholders from different continents will engage in discussions on how to further improve and implement PRTRs during the Global Round Table on PRTRs to take place on 24 and 25 November 2015 in Madrid. Hosted by Spain, the event is being organized under the auspices of United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in cooperation with United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the United Nations Environment Programme.

PRTRs provide access to specific environmental information by everybody, with virtually no restrictions. Free web-based access to geo-referenced environmental data empowers the public, decision makers in government and industry, scientists and journalists to make informed choices. Furthermore, a well-established network of environmental data gathered and stored by PRTRs allows industries to validate their efforts in reaching sustainability. While there are other initiatives promoting PRTRs, the UNECE Protocol on PRTRs is the only legally binding instrument on these registers to ensure minimum standards for equal rights and transparency in the use of environmental data. It offers a solid legal framework for enhancing public access to information and to help Governments achieve a number of Sustainable Development Goals.

Prior to the meeting, UNECE Weekly approached several of the panellists speaking at the Global Round Table to learn how they see the role of PRTRs in the near future:

Pablo Saavedra Inaraja
State Secretary for Environment
Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment of Spain

With the recent adoption of a new United Nations sustainable development agenda, Governments and stakeholders are discussing how to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in an intelligent way. How will the Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers help countries to implement the SDGs?

“Many of the 17 SDGs adopted by United Nations last September are related to the protection of the environment, as an essential pillar of sustainable development, along with the proper use of natural resources to ensure the preservation of both ecosystems and biological diversity.

The PRTR registers can be a first-rate instrument to assess the implementation process of those goals. Although they are developed at the national or sub-national scale, through them, we are enable to gain insight into the environmental impacts produced by the main industrial activities as well as use them to evaluate global, regional and country trends in terms of pollution, and identify priorities for action.

In this sense the PRTR Protocol plays a fundamental role, as it is the first international legal instrument that establishes minimum requirements on PRTR design and implementation. The fact that the Protocol is open to non-UNECE countries further facilitates its role as a reference framework.”

Clicking on your country’s PRTR web page in 2030, what do you want to see?

“What PRTRs have shown since their inception, is that they are tools used not only by environmental authorities but also by many other stakeholders: academia, industries, NGOs, etc. The Spanish experience confirms this, with a monthly average of more than 100,000 visits to the PRTR-España website, and more than 6,500,000 visitors in total, so far.

The main challenge for 2030 is for PRTR-España to continue being a national and international reference website on environmental information. This would mean that the Register is actively helpful, keeping the interest of users and responding to user´s demands.

The key issue is therefore to explore its potentialities and expand its possibilities, without forgetting that, over all, a PRTR is an environmental information instrument.”

A PRTR system can be used by diverse stakeholders to fulfil many different needs. What are the opportunities for making a full use of the potential of PRTRs?

“In order to maximize the usefulness of PRTRs it is crucial to bolster the ongoing work led by the main international organizations in areas such as the harmonization and the improvement of data quality. These essential tasks are currently being carried out through the adoption of guidelines; developing methods and standards; establishing common or equivalent criteria to facilitate comparability on a global scale; and strengthening the principles of transparency, access to information and participation in the decision-making process of all stakeholders involved.”

Tina Skårman (Sweden)
Chair of the Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol on Pollutants Release and Transfer Registers

With the recent adoption of a new United Nations sustainable development agenda, Governments and stakeholders are discussing how to implement the SDGs in an intelligent way. How will the Protocol on PRTRs help countries to implement the SDGs?

“The Protocol’s provisions support countries in building publicly accessible databases to monitor pollution, and to review the effectiveness of measures taken in order to reduce pollution of the environment. Implementation of the Protocol’s provisions further strengthen governance by facilitating fact-based decision-making, and establishing processes which are cross-cutting and ensure equal opportunities for a variety of stakeholders. The Protocol is linked to most of the 17 new SDGs, but in particular countries could use PRTRs as a tool to monitor progress of the following goals; “Good health and well-being”, “Industry, innovation and infrastructure” and “Responsible consumption and production”. “

The management of chemical substances faces a number of challenges, such as the use of nanomaterial, highly toxic pesticides and, at the same time, the replacement of “traditional” chemical substances with new, less toxic substitutes that might not be covered by the current management regimes. Can these challenges be addressed properly with the existing tools? Do PRTRs have a role to play?

“Knowledge, information and public awareness are prerequisites for decision-making within the sound management of chemical substances. PRTRs can provide an infrastructure for the reporting of chemical substances that are released into the environment or transferred off-site. However, it is important that the Protocol on PRTRs takes into account other relevant international processes that handle emerging chemical substances, and consider further development of the Protocol in order to ensure that it continues to serve as an adequate instrument to achieve its objectives.”

A PRTR system can be used by diverse stakeholders to fulfil many different needs. What are the opportunities for making a full use of the potential of PRTRs?

“A PRTR system is not effective unless it is used by the public and by key stakeholders. Thus, raising public awareness is an essential element in PRTR development and implementation. Press contacts and press releases are key methods to seek media attention. Since PRTRs are intended to be electronic databases, the PRTR websites have the potential to become portals to environmental information, linking not only different PRTR data, but also other relevant environmental information — information that may be spread over different databases whose existence is not well known to the public. PRTRs can also be a valuable tool for environmental education.”

Noriyuki Suzuki (Japan)
Chair of the OECD Task Force on PRTRs

With the recent adoption of a new United Nations sustainable development agenda, Governments and stakeholders are discussing how to implement the SDGs in an intelligent way. How will the work of OECD on PRTRs help countries to implement the SDGs?

“We need to establish a stable chemical managing mechanism towards 2020 and beyond — until the new 2030 SDGs. Management efforts to reduce and control releases of pollutants will play a key role in the implementation of the SDGs at the international level.

On the global scale, the chemical industry continues to grow steadily each year, and this growth is projected to increase by approximately 3% annually through 2050. PRTRs provide a rich source of information on the release of chemical pollutants for multiple uses and purposes, which is the one key tool to achieve the SDGs — through the control and reduction of pollutants under public scrutiny.

OECD has been, and will be, a continuous platform to improve PRTRs as well as to provide opportunities on the better use of PRTR data in order to help countries to achieve the SDGs.”

The management of chemical substances faces a number of challenges, such as the use of nanomaterial, highly toxic pesticides and, at the same time, the replacement of “traditional” chemical substances with new substitutes that might not be covered by the current management regimes. Can these challenges be addressed properly with the existing tools? Do PRTRs have a role to play?

“PRTRs have great experience on release estimation techniques, data quality management and effective use of data on the release and transfers of pollutants, all of which are clearly effective for nanomaterials, new chemicals or substitutes in terms of techniques. However, current PRTR systems in countries may not be flexible enough to meet quick changes in chemical substances as new technologies progress.

To be ready for the current situation, the chemical list should be reviewed periodiodically with a view to managing emerging substances as well as keeping track of the changes in existing chemicals and the comparability of the data across different PRTRs.

To respond to the needs of countries, OECD should also periodically update the harmonized lists across the countries.”

A PRTR system can be used by diverse stakeholders to fulfil many different needs. What are the opportunities for making a full use of the potential of PRTRs?

“Greater harmonization of PRTR data across OECD countries — as well as non-OECD countries — would provide increased opportunities for a global analysis of pollutant releases as well as facilitate comparisons between countries.

Historically, each county designed its PRTR to meet the needs of the country. As a result, several years ago, we found that approximately 1,200 chemicals were reported to the OECD database, while only 14 of them are common to all PRTRs. Therefore, we developed two lists of chemicals; the "Long List" containing all chemicals covered by any one of the PRTRs across all countries, and the "Short List" containing chemicals covered by multiple PRTRs. It is important to seek a way to establish more globally sharable PRTR data sets, which would make them more effective and make full use of the potential of PRTRs by worldwide stakeholders.

With harmonized PRTRs, their data could be used as indicators of progress in meeting environmental goals, and the effectiveness of environmental policies. For example, we could assess the global impact of pollution prevention practices by facilities/industry sectors throughout the world, identify industry sectors or countries where pollution prevention is or is not being implemented or prioritize chemicals or industry sectors to be focused on.”

Mara Silina
Co-Chair of the European ECO Forum

With the recent adoption of a new United Nations sustainable development agenda, Governments and stakeholders are discussing how to implement the SDGs in an intelligent way. How will the Protocol on PRTRs help countries to implement the SDGs?

“The key objectives of the PRTR Protocol are to improve environmental performance of industry, ensure publicly accessible information on pollutant releases and transfers and stimulate public participation in decision-making processes. PRTRs are a good instrument not only to implement SDGs by providing data on pollutants and their releases, but also to evaluate the implementation of SDGs. They can be used in different ways for at least 9 of the 17 SDGs. Just a few examples. For SDG 3 (good health and well-being), data provided by the PRTRs could help to reduce and/or prevent the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution. In the case of SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), PRTRs can be used as a monitoring and evaluation tool for activities to improve water quality, namely reducing pollution, gradually phasing out waste discharges and minimizing emissions of hazardous chemicals and materials, etc. On SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure), PRTRs could be a good tool to assess the effectiveness of the resource use and the use of cleaner and environmentally friendly technologies and production processes when implementing tasks to modernize infrastructure and modify industry to ensure their sustainability by 2030. For SDG 13 (climate action), PRTRs should become a tool for national policy to combat climate change (i.e., with relevant climate change indicators included in a PRTR system). PRTRs will help to improve the level of education, public awareness and the development of human and institutional capacity-building in the area of climate change mitigation. Meanwhile, for SDG 15 (life on land), PRTRs could be used as an indicator for implementation of the first five tasks of that goal, provided that additional data are included in the PRTR system.”

The management of chemical substances faces a number of challenges, such as the use of nanomaterial, highly toxic pesticides and, at the same time, the replacement of “traditional” chemical substances with new, less toxic substitutes that might not be covered by the current management regimes. Can these challenges be addressed properly with the existing tools? Do PRTRs have a role to play?

“Existing tools are not enough to properly address new challenges arising from the use of new substances or the replacement of existing even less toxic ones. However, PRTRs can play their role but need to become broader and more flexible. This would mean expanding them and adding new substances. It is also important to place in the PRTR relevant information on new substances and substitutes.”

A PRTR system can be used by diverse stakeholders to fulfil many different needs. What are the opportunities for making a full use of the potential of PRTRs?

“In order to fully use PRTRs one needs to know and understand them. There is a great need to focus on the maximum use of PRTR data at the local level both by local government and administrative bodies as well by citizens and NGOs. If PRTRs were included in the information systems of local government it would also help people to get used to them. Links to related information sources, like departments of health, industry, etc., should be made. Since not all people have sufficient knowledge about the information provided by PRTRs there is a need to “interpret” this information in a more understandable way, including by making links to background information and showing the effects of different pollutants on peoples’ everyday life. PRTRs would become even more useful if they included, among others, industry performance (inputs/outputs) and the technical improvements being made to improve it.”

Pedro Mora
Vice President of the Sustainable Development and Environment Committee of the Spanish Confederation of Employers and Industries (CEOE)

With the recent adoption of a new United Nations sustainable development agenda, Governments and stakeholders are discussing how to implement the SDGs in an intelligent way. How will the Protocol on PRTRs help countries to implement the SDGs?

“A proper use and implementation of a PRTR could become a powerful tool that contributes to the monitoring of environmental performance and decision-making by the authorities, but it is very ambitious to think that PRTRs can contribute to the implementation of the SDGs for the following reasons:

  • Unfortunately we must bear in mind that, currently, the PRTR contains only partial information concerning environmental performance, since information is only included on integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) industry, which could lead to a misinterpretation of the information obtained.
  • One large facility can operate more efficiently and pollute relatively less compared to several smaller ones not included in IPPC legislation that generate the same level of service or output.
  • The PRTR report does not assess whether a facility's emissions are consistent with its legal requirements to operate (e.g., if the facility releases pollutants or transfers waste off-site which exceed specific thresholds set out in article 5 of the E-PRTR Regulation; these thresholds for releases of pollutants are not emission limit values). Nor does it address air pollutants released from non-industrial sources, such as transport, and consequently it does not reflect the total damage costs caused by air pollution across Europe. The recognized significant economic and social benefits generated by industry (such as products, employment and tax revenues) are also not addressed.
  • The current lack of comparability of data requires a standardization of methodologies and greater uniformity of criteria among member States.”

The management of chemical substances faces a number of challenges, such as the use of nanomaterial, highly toxic pesticides and, at the same time, the replacement of “traditional” chemical substances with new, less toxic substitutes that might not be covered by the current management regimes. Can these challenges be addressed properly with the existing tools? Do PRTRs have a role to play?

“To face these challenges on chemicals we have a very important tool under the umbrella of the United Nation, the International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM). This year, 2015, saw its fourth session in September in Geneva, where, over five days, global industry leaders, policymakers and stakeholders met to discuss ways to improve and standardize safe chemicals management for the benefit of society and industry through the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM). Among outcomes of the fourth session of ICCM, we can highlight the following:

  • A Memorandum of Understanding between UNEP and the International Council of Chemical Associations to reinforce capacity-building.
  • Emerging issues action on endocrine disruptors, chemicals in products and nanomaterials, promoting the exchange of information rather than the creation of new regulatory proposals.”

A PRTR system can be used by diverse stakeholders to fulfil many different needs. What are the opportunities for making a full use of the potential of PRTRs?

“The distortion of the information published in the PRTR, drawing wrong conclusions or even used unfairly, should be avoided, since it damages the image of a company without a scientific basis or objective criteria.

In general, the PRTR methodology for data capture is not understood by the public and journalists and this is causing a lot of problems because different groups are using the PRTR for attacking IPPC industries. We must urge the Commission to provide a clear explanation, accompanying any PRTR publication, clarifying:

  • If one company is included in the list, it does not imply that it is emitting more than the legal emission limit and the value reflected is just an absolute amount. The bigger figures are related, in general, to the size of the company and not their environmental behavior. It is necessary to be more careful when interpreting the results. The E-PRTR Regulation is required only for those industrial facilities with an activity rate exceeding a defined threshold and emissions exceeding the pollutant-specific thresholds to report information to the register. As a result, E-PRTR coverage varies significantly across the different pollutants and sectors.
  • There are serious inconsistencies in the data set and in many cases the reported figures do not match reality.
  • Emissions data in mass flows do not help us to understand plant performance and cannot be used for benchmarking and policy purposes.
  • Competition issues with the data set should be assessed.

Finally, Governments should improve the dissemination, information and training of the stakeholders involved in this process (local administration, neighbours, environmental organizations and journalists that will disseminate the information).”