The use of the world’s oceans as a dumping ground for harmful wastes has been systematically regulated and reduced under the terms of an international convention that, this year, celebrates 40 years since it was first adopted.
The "Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, 1972", usually referred to as the "London Convention", was one of the first global conventions designed to protect the marine environment from human activities. It has been in force since 1975.
The contracting Parties to the 1972 London Convention (and its 1996 Protocol) will meet at the London headquarters of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), from 29 October to 2 November 2012. During this meeting they will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention, which took place on 13 November 1972.
The objective of the London Convention is to promote the effective control of all sources of marine pollution and to take all practicable steps to prevent pollution of the sea by dumping of wastes and other matter. Currently, 87 States are Parties to it.
In 1996, the "London Protocol" was agreed, to further modernize the Convention and, eventually, to replace it. Under the Protocol, all dumping is prohibited, except for possibly acceptable wastes on the so-called "reverse list". This includes dredged material, sewage sludge, fish wastes, inert, inorganic geological material (e.g. mining wastes), organic material of natural origin, and carbon dioxide streams from carbon dioxide capture processes for sequestration. The London Protocol entered into force on 24 March 2006 and currently has 42 States Parties.
The 40 years since the London Convention was adopted have left a strong legacy of tangible successes from which both the marine environment and mankind have benefited. The unregulated dumping and incineration activities that developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s have been halted.
Amendments that were adopted in 1993 and entered into force a year later brought in a total ban on the dumping into the sea of low-level radioactive wastes. In addition, within two years of their adoption, by 31 December 1995, they phased out the dumping of industrial wastes and banned the incineration at sea of industrial waste and sewage sludge.
Parties to the Convention agreed to control dumping by implementing regulatory programmes to assess the need for, and the potential impact of, dumping. They eliminated dumping of certain types of waste and, gradually, made this regime more restrictive by promoting sound waste management and pollution prevention. Prohibitions are in force for dumping of industrial and radioactive wastes, as well as for incineration at sea of industrial waste and sewage sludge. And as mentioned earlier, under the Protocol all dumping is now prohibited, except for the so called "reverse list".
A comprehensive series of guidelines on dumping have been developed under the auspices of the Convention and Protocol, notably:
• generic guidelines and comprehensive specific guidelines for all wastes on the reverse list
• guidance on implementation of the London Protocol at the national level
• guidelines for the sampling and analysis of dredged material intended for disposal at sea (to assist Parties with limited capacity or resources, advice on the application of low-technology techniques for assessing dredged material has also been developed)
• guidelines for the application of the ‘de minimis’ concept, to assist in making judgements on whether materials for dumping could be exempt from radiological controls or whether a specific radiological assessment is needed
• guidance for the development of Action Lists and Action Levels for Dredged Material, to assist regulators and policy makers in relation to dredged material proposed for disposal at sea.
In addition, formal advice has been developed concerning the management of spoilt cargoes aboard vessels; best management practices for removal of anti-fouling coatings from ships and the placement of artificial reefs, and a technical co-operation and assistance programme has been established to assist with capacity building for waste assessment and management, and in developing national regulations to comply with, and implement, the London Protocol.
Contracting Parties to the LP have recently taken ground-breaking steps to mitigate the impacts of increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by amending the LP to regulate carbon capture and sequestration in sub-sea geological formations. In 2006, the LP Contracting Parties adopted amendments to Annex I of the Protocol to regulate carbon capture and sequestration in sub-seabed geological formations. In 2009, the LP was further amended to address the issue of export of waste for dumping purposes.
Since 2007, the Contracting Parties have taken steps to develop a global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanism for ocean fertilization and other activities that fall within the scope of the LC and LP and that may cause harm to the environment, including marine geo-engineering activities. In 2010, an assessment framework for scientific research involving ocean fertilization was adopted.
A Risk Assessment and Management Framework was developed to ensure compatibility with Annex 2 to the LP, identify relevant gaps in knowledge, and reach a view on the implications of this storage activity for the marine environment.
All in all, the Contracting Parties to the London Convention and Protocol have developed a wealth of experience regarding marine pollution prevention issues, interpretation of the Convention and Protocol, licensing, compliance and field monitoring activities.
When they meet at IMO from 29 October to 2 November 2012, the agenda will include, among other items:
• further development of regulatory controls on ocean fertilization and other similar activities and the guidelines for CO2 sequestration to include transboundary issues
• a review of compliance issues under the London Protocol
• a review of the status report and planning for technical co-operation activities
• a review of the joint MEPC-LC/LP guidance on management of spoilt cargoes
• a discussion on matters related to the management of radioactive waste
• the finalization of the publication “The London Protocol: What it is and how to implement it”, and
• a review of the Joint Long-term Programme for the period 2013 to 2015.
Forty years after its adoption, the London Convention and its Protocol are still providing a relevant and important framework within which the international community is tackling key issues surrounding the protection of the marine environment.