Global game-changer? EU Chemicals Strategy could create watershed moment if ‘properly implemented’

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

The EU's Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability includes a plethora of indicative actions it wants to take, many with global implications, but these need to be transformed into concrete actions, according to non-profit Center for International Environmental Law (Getty Images)
The EU's Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability includes a plethora of indicative actions it wants to take, many with global implications, but these need to be transformed into concrete actions, according to non-profit Center for International Environmental Law (Getty Images)

Related tags European commission Eu European Green Deal Regulation legislation Sustainability Chemicals Environment

The European Commission’s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability has the potential to set an example to the world if concrete actions and legislative proposals build it out into something meaningful over the coming years, says the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).

In October 2020, the European Commission (EC) adopted its Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability​ to further strengthen protection of human and environmental health. The strategy​, part of the EC’s wider European Green Deal​, proposed a phase out of the most harmful substances and a simplification of the risk assessment process around chemicals, among many other things.

The Commission said the overarching goal was to boost innovation for “safe and sustainable chemicals” ​– a broad goal supported by trade associations Cosmetics Europe and the UK’s Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA), though both agreed details needed fleshing out.

Turning EU Chemicals Strategy into concrete actions a ‘significant challenge’

The non-profit environmental law firm Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) agreed the Strategy held great promise, noting in a recent public analysis: “If properly implemented, the Strategy has the potential to be a game-changer.”

However, CIEL noted that in its current form – “a communication with an indicative action plan that needs to be carried out” – ​more would be needed to create real change.

“Turning these promises into legislative proposals and concrete actions will be a significant challenge and responsibility for the next few years. The implementation of the Strategy will determine whether these initiatives will be remembered as a watershed moment for the EU, or yet another missed opportunity to put people and planet before private financial interests.”

The EU, CIEL said, would need “adequate resources to move swiftly”​ to operationalise and implement its Strategy – action that had to start this year; “not delayed by analysis or paralysis”.

Global implications? International management of chemicals under EU Strategy

Beyond the potential to “transform the overall EU policy on chemicals”,​ including making a preventative approach the default option with chemical risk management and defining essential uses to rid the market of the most harmful chemicals, CIEL said it was important to look at how the Strategy also aimed to shape the global chemicals market.

Between 2020-2024, for example, the EU said it would “promote due diligence in the sustainable production and use of chemicals”​ and engage in initiatives with international organisations and industry to promote the use of the United Nation’s Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) ​globally. Before 2022, the EU said it would also support third countries in the assessment and management of chemicals, largely through funding.

However, CIEL said that to achieve global GHS implementation, certain countries would need “broader support” – ​financial resources and capacity building – to develop the regulatory infrastructure that allowed such a system in their national chemicals framework.

“Several building blocks” ​would be needed, it said, including financial resources, legal and institutional infrastructures, and capacity building for relevant ministers and enforcement authorities. The non-profit said relevant UN resources could, for example, be used for this purpose.

“In line with the multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral approach for the sound management of chemicals and waste, the development and implementation of national infrastructures should include the meaningful participation of government authorities, industry, civil society organisations, workers and trade unions, the health sector, and relevant international organisations.”

‘Ambitious, science-based criteria’ must be prioritised over ‘corporate influence’

Within its Strategy, the EC also said that by 2023 it wanted to ensure hazardous chemicals banned in the EU were no longer produced for export, ending relevant legislation if and as needed. And by 2024, the goal was to have a proposal at the UN GHS level to introduce, adapt or clarify criteria and hazard classes in line with the European Chemicals Agency’s (ECHA) CLP Regulation.

CIEL said halting the exportation of banned substances could be considered a “first step to support third countries”​ and should be extended to restricting waste exports as well. The introduction of new hazard classes at UN GHS level “should also lead to the adoption of complementary measures”,​ including ways to avoid “unnecessary repetition of a hazard assessment”, ​it said. ​Labels to adequately share information in the chemicals supply chain with workers and consumers, for example, would be necessary, along with further information to address concerns around the ‘cocktail effect’ or combined exposure to different chemicals.

“Once ambitious, science-based criteria are indeed adopted, the same approach should be taken at the UN GHS level, to avoid weakening the standards and complicating implementation. The GHS criteria should also be adapted to include the classification of nanomaterials,”​ CIEL said.

In the Strategy’s aim to promote common standards and innovative risk assessment tools internationally, CIEL said the EU must “take into account the latest scientific advances, being wary of vested interests and taking appropriate steps to limit corporate influence”.

If the EU Chemicals Strategy is accomplished, ‘the impacts will last decades’

The EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability in its entirety, the non-profit said, was a “first step”​ towards a future where chemical companies innovated towards safer chemicals; complied with legislation; and enabled a toxic-free circular economy.

“The Strategy, if implemented, would enable the EU to make human health and the environment priorities.”​ However, a true implementation required “avoiding loopholes and adhering to the commitments made”,​ CIEL said.

“If this can be accomplished, the impacts will last decades, and create a ripple effect in the rest of the world. That’s why it’s crucial that key concepts such as the ‘safe and sustainable by design’ criteria, and policies such as the end of double standards in the EU chemicals exports are done right, starting this year,”​ the non-profit said.

“…With complete and proper implementation of the Strategy, the EU is poised to set a high bar for the international community to meet regarding chemicals management. Anything less will set a dangerous precedent of allowing corporate interests to trump human and environmental health and worsen citizens’ mistrust of the EU,”​ CIEL said.

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