Protecting Pacific Natural Resources, Peace and Security in a Changing Climate – Tim Groser

In 2015-2016, several initiatives have bolstered the U.S.-New Zealand relationship, including modernization of defense ties and cooperation on transnational issues like action on climate change and protection of the ocean. In addition, the Obama Administration has heralded the conclusion of negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement as its primary economic platform for engagement and growth in the Asia-Pacific policy re-balance. To examine recent key events and aspects of the U.S.-New Zealand relationship, Genevieve Neilson, Pacific Island Security Scholar, interviews New Zealand Ambassador to the United States Tim Groser. Appointed in January 2016, Ambassador Groser has regularly drawn from his expertise as the former Minister of Trade and Minister Responsible for Climate Change Issues.


As Minister, you played a central role in several significant achievements, such as the finalization of New Zealand’s free trade agreement with South Korea, conclusion of Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement negotiations, and securing the Paris Climate Agreement. After settling in to life in Washington, what are your priorities as Ambassador in the coming months?

To begin with, paradoxically, my focus was dominated by the Paris climate change agreement and TPP; as a former Minister I have a unique position in both these areas. I have had to avoid becoming involved in internal US politics on these issues, but put forward the substance of the case as the New Zealand Government’s Ambassador in Washington.

With time, I have begun to reacquaint myself with the defence and security elements to the relationship and enhancements to the scientific and innovative sectors. It has been pleasing to see in my time as Ambassador the announcement of a 15-year modernisation plan worth nearly $20 billion to ensure the New Zealand Defence Force has the capabilities it needs to meet the country’s security and defence challenges. Demonstrating New Zealand’s willingness to share the burden of international peace and security is an important part of our relationship here.

Prior to the signing of the Paris Agreement in April, the Royal Society of New Zealand released a report detailing the impacts of climate change for New Zealand. What has been the New Zealand Government’s response to the report?

The report observes that New Zealand is strongly dependent upon international connections and that the way other countries respond to climate change will influence New Zealand’s international trade relationships. This is something that I followed closely in my former capacities as Minister for Trade and for International Climate Change Negotiations. It is important to me that these debates are informed by sound economics, and a real understanding about the carbon cycle. Otherwise, real damage can be done by junk concepts such as “food miles”. Research has shown that New Zealand’s mild climate, greater efficiency, and availability of electricity that is over 90% renewable leads to a very low carbon footprint for its food production, and the amount of carbon emitted by shipping product halfway across the world is about the same as that emitted by driving between the supermarket and one’s home. There is an opportunity for New Zealand agriculture to tell this story as consumers become more conscious of climate change impacts.

Because the country is so interconnected with the international economy, the Royal Society of New Zealand report states that “New Zealand cannot chart its response to climate change based on impacts in New Zealand alone.” Since your time as Minister Responsible for Climate Change Issues, what have been some highlights of the New Zealand Government’s work with other countries in this area? How do you see international cooperation reducing the impact of climate change on New Zealand?

As a resource dependent and export dependent economy, New Zealand needs an effective global response to climate change.

The Paris agreement last December was an historic step forward and serves New Zealand’s interests well. It was the first truly global agreement on climate change. All countries are committing to take ambitious action. We can’t underestimate the significance of 185 countries making emission reduction pledges over the course of this year. The Paris Agreement banks these. While they collectively won’t solve global warming in one hit, the new agreement sets up a process for regular, 5 yearly, updates. This sets the world on a clear pathway to a lower-carbon future.

New Zealand’s 2030 target, to reduce emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels, is a strong contribution to this global effort. At the Paris Conference, Prime Minister Key announced New Zealand would provide up to $200m in climate finance, particularly for Pacific Island countries, over the next four years.

Since 2013, we have been working closely with Pacific Island countries as they transition to renewable sources of energy. At the latest Pacific Energy Conference in Auckland in June, donors committed more than $NZ 1 billion to renewable energy projects in the Pacific. This investment will support Polynesia to achieve more than 50% renewable energy by 2024, provide access to electricity for an estimated 1 million people in Melanesia and support other countries in the Pacific to double their renewable energy generation.

Of conservation efforts, the creation of marine sanctuaries, reserves and national monuments are an essential method to restore fisheries and protect local industries in the United States and across the Pacific. Last year, U.S. President Barack Obama and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced significant, new marine reserves. How has the New Zealand Government engaged with locally impacted parties to decide on the scope its conservation efforts?

Prime Minister Key’s announcement last year of the creation of the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary will lead to one of the world’s largest and most significant fully protected areas. It includes the second deepest ocean trench at over 10 kilometres and an arc of 30 underwater volcanoes, the largest anywhere on earth. It is home to six million seabirds of 39 different species, over 150 species of fish, 35 species of whales and dolphins, three species of sea turtles, and many other marine species like corals, shellfish and crabs unique to the area.

We continue to see news stories where the ‘largest’ or ‘one of the largest’ marine reserves and sanctuaries are announced, for example in Palau, Chile, and New Zealand. Why do you think governments have embraced policies that institute ever-larger marine reserves?

Oceans are the new frontier for environmental protection. They make up 72 per cent of the globe and are home to half of the world’s species, but currently only two per cent is protected. There is increased pressure from over-fishing, mining and pollution. Just as earlier New Zealanders set aside significant areas of our land in National Parks, we need to protect special areas of our sea like the pristine ocean around the Kermadec Islands.

New Zealand is a party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity. This means we have obligations to protect and preserve our marine environment. Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, we have committed to having 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas conserved by 2020. The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary contributes to these targets. New Zealand currently has 9.7 per cent of our territorial sea fully protected, but no full protection in our EEZ. The Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary will mean 15 per cent of New Zealand’s ocean environment will be fully protected.

In the past year, Pacific island countries have faced a number of devastating storms and damaging floods, including Cyclone Winston in Fiji and Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu. El Nino is taking a toll on Palau and other Pacific states, causing water shortages. What has been the New Zealand Government’s strategy in aiding its Pacific neighbors in the face of extreme weather events? Does the New Zealand Government have any plans to modify its approach, such as concentrating more on preventative, disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation or humanitarian response efforts?

Disaster Risk Management, preventative measures, and humanitarian responses are significant parts of the New Zealand Defence Forces’ thinking and planning.

The New Zealand Government engaged extensively with neighbours in the south-west Pacific ahead of last summer’s El Nino weather event, with a particular focus on preparedness for forecast drought and water shortages. The New Zealand Defence Force’s response to Cyclone Winston in Fiji was one of our biggest peacetime deployments to the Pacific, with close to 500 personnel, two ships and six aircraft, involved in delivering hundreds of tonnes of critical aid.

The New Zealand Government has committed more than $15 million for relief and recovery activities to date. The reconstruction phase of New Zealand’s support to Fiji will focus on rebuilding schools, evacuation centres and medical facilities, as well as efforts to stimulate the local economy.

In an interview last year, Prime Minister John Key alluded to the idea that you were selected to be the next Ambassador to the United States in order to support U.S. ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement. From your perspective, what is the current status of the TPP, and how has becoming Ambassador changed the role you’re playing in supporting it?

The current status of TPP is that it awaits ratification by the 12 member countries. This is a complex undertaking in every country, but as Ambassador to the United States my focus is on events in Washington. My role is to make the case for TPP as the mechanism for sustained US engagement in the Asia-Pacific, and for setting the rules of the road in the 21st century.

It’s certainly the case that the environment on trade in the United States is very complicated, with the two major Presidential candidates opposed to the deal in its current form. What I have found, though, is a real understanding in Washington of the risks to the United States’ economic and strategic future in the Asia Pacific if it fails to ratify the agreement. I am confident the United States will make the right decision, and my job is to continue to argue for the reasons why.

 


Tim Groser

Tim Groser was appointed New Zealand Ambassador to the United States in January 2016. He is also New Zealand’s Special Envoy to the Pacific Alliance. In 2005, Mr. Groser was elected to Parliament and from 2008 to 2015 was cabinet minister, most recently as Minister of Trade and Minister Responsible for Climate Change Issues. From 2002-2005 he was New Zealand’s Ambassador to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the Chair of Agriculture Negotiations for the WTO. He also served as Ambassador to Indonesia from 1994-1997.


The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to pr@islandssociety.org. Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: lovelessland via Flickr CC

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