University of Gothenburg

EU’s International Leadership and the New EU Chemicals Strategy

The implementation of a common worldwide classification and labeling of chemicals has been an unfulfilled international goal for over two decades. Can the European Commission's new chemicals strategy for sustainability be a way forward? The strategy aims to increase the protection of human health and the environment against hazardous chemicals.

Every day, people are faced with potentially dangerous chemicals that need to be labeled with easy-to-understand warning signs. One such system is the Global Harmonized System for Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS), but despite the availability of a global system, implementation has been an unfulfilled international goal for over two decades. The EU has an important role to play in promoting and integrating the safe handling of chemicals worldwide, and in October 2020, the European Commission adopted a new chemicals strategy for sustainability. The strategy aims to increase the protection of human health and the environment against hazardous chemicals and has the potential to have a positive impact on the situation in the EU's neighboring countries and become part of the EU's future trade agreements with other states.

In October 2020, the European Commission adopted the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. The Strategy aims to increase the protection of human health and the environment against hazardous chemicals. Some of the initiatives to achieve this goal are strengthening international standards and promoting safety and sustainability standards outside the EU.

The European Union must and can play a leading role to champion and promote high chemical standards in the world. It must since much of the expected rise in chemical production – which is expected to double by 2030- will shift to developing countries and economies in transition. EU is also dependent on massive amounts of imported food and other products containing chemical substances that can be hazardous. Thus, if the EU was to succeed to increase the protection of human health and the environment against hazardous chemicals within European borders, it must inevitability not only advocate for a safer chemical management within the EU but also globally.

The EU’s leadership is also a must because the global governance of chemicals remains extremely fragmented, and standards and compliance vary widely across countries. An example of this is the implementation gap of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). People of any age, from children to the elderly, using many different  languages  and  alphabets,  belonging  to  various  social  conditions,  are daily confronted with products containing potentially dangerous chemicals. For instance, pesticides, cleaning chemicals, paints, cosmetics and so forth. A sound management of chemicals starts by developing and implementing systems through which chemical hazards are identified and communicated to all who are potentially exposed. Given the extensive global trade in chemicals, and internationally harmonized system to classification and labelling of chemicals not only can ensure that consistent and appropriate information on chemicals hazards is available globally, but also provides the foundation to establish the infrastructure to control chemical exposures and protect people and the environment. Such infrastructure is missing in many countries, and even though significant progress has been made to adopt GHS around the globe, it has yet to be implemented in 118 countries. Studies analyzing the status of GHS implementation have found that the lack of financial and regulatory capacity stand out as key factors associated with the lack of GHS implementation. The evidence also indicates that political will helps to overcome such constraints and that regional economic organizations such as the EU have the power to enhance that will. For example, aspirations to join the EU have been an important driver providing the political support required for GHS implementation in countries such as Albania, Georgia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, among others.

The European Union can play a leading role to promote a more sustainable chemical management worldwide because what happens in the EU regarding chemicals policy now matters globally through several channels. For instance, the EU can lead by example since it is undeniably that the EU already has one of the most comprehensive and protective regulatory frameworks for chemicals worldwide. Even if much remains to be done and improved, it is well acknowledged that EU regulations such as REACH have served as a model for chemical reforms around the world (e.g., Korea, Japan, China, and Malaysia. REACH also inspired the recent reform of the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act—signed into law in June 2016).

The European Union can also play a leading role through international trade.  Many governments are increasingly recognizing the need to ensure that trade agreements reflect environmental concerns to help achieve overarching environmental goals and to increase their public acceptability. Environmental provisions in regional trade agreements are increasing in terms of their number and variety. These provisions are becoming far-reaching covering issues such as the regulation of hazardous waste, deforestation and the protection of fish stock.

An important factor contributing to the increased frequency of environmental provisions is that example countries (such as the EU) have both extended their political mandates for the regional trade agreements in which they are involved, to include provisions for compliance with multilateral environmental agreements, leading other countries to follow in their path. For example, the legal mandate for inclusion of environmental provisions in the EU’s regional trade agreements is provided in the EU Treaty (Official Journal of the EU, 2012) which defines sustainable development as an overarching principle that guides the EU internal and external action. In addition, Article 11 of the EU Treaty explicitly states that environmental protection requirements must be integrated into the definition and implementation of EU policies and activities, in particular with a view to promoting sustainable development

Classification and harmonization of chemicals in accordance to the GHS is one perfect example of a win-win of the relationship between trade and environment. It cannot only lead to increased trade because of reduced information asymmetries and transactions costs, but also enhanced protection of human health and the environment. GHS has only been referred to in few rather recent international trade agreements, most of them involving the EU. For instance, the EU’s most recent trade agreements with Japan and with the UK (in connection to BREXIT). This hopefully becomes the standard for all future EU trade negotiations, whether with states that have implemented the GHS or not.

Many accidents and diseases caused by chemicals occur every day. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that hazardous substances alone cause 651,279 deaths a year. The GHS has great potential as a preventative strategy in advanced chemical management as well as a tool for hazard information dissemination. Global GHS implementation has been an objective of the international community for more than two decades!!! Nonetheless, implementation of GHS is still partial and significant amount of leadership will be needed to generate the political will to close the GHS implementation gap. The EU has an important role to play to promote and mainstream the sound management of chemical worldwide and the implementation of classification systems as GHS bring us one-step closer to that goal.


Written by: Jessica Coria


This text was originally posted in Swedish on which is run and funded by the Center for European Research (CFE) at Lund University.