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New Zealand S&T Minister Describes Efforts to Become First Sustainable Nation
New Zealand, a small country with large ambitions, hopes to become the world's first truly sustainable nation, according to Steve Maharey, New Zealand's Minister of Research, Science and Technology.
Maharey spoke at a 31 October breakfast seminar sponsored by AAAS and the Washington Science Policy Alliance. Maharey led a delegation of New Zealand science officials who were in Washington to renew a long-standing agreement with the United States for cooperation on science and technology.
He visited AAAS to talk about his government's vision of a New Zealand that shows other nations the way toward a carbon-neutral economy—one in which emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide gases are balanced with offsets, such as growth of more forests to absorb those gases.
"We want to be the first sustainable nation on Earth," Maharey said. Because of its geography and culture, he said, New Zealand has an opportunity to follow through over the next several decades on such high hopes.
New Zealand's status as an island nation with an independent, resilient population gives it an unusual opportunity to pursue economic, environmental and social sustainability, Maharey said. "I believe it is our very smallness and relative isolation in the southern ocean—coupled with smart science and a 'can-do' attitude—that will allow us to become a beacon of sustainability," Maharey said.
A move toward sustainability means coping with such challenging issues as energy efficiency, climate change and recovery of lost species, he said.
"We want to maintain our unique environment in the face of climate changes," Maharey said. Scientists, including New Zealand researchers in Antarctica and at a carbon dioxide monitoring station south of Wellington, have helped to establish that there are genuine shifts in global climate patterns underway, he said.
In response, New Zealand—which already gets 60 to 65% of its electricity from renewable energy sources such as hydropower—is looking to move even more toward renewables. The government's energy strategy sets a target of 90% renewable electricity by 2025. Government-owned power companies will no longer be allowed to build fossil-fueled generating plants.
The government also has set a goal of cutting carbon emissions in the transportation sector in half by 2040. Investment in public transportation has increased 750 percent over the last seven budget cycles, Maharey said. Residents are being encouraged to use public transport and electrically powered vehicles. New Zealand scientists also are working on a technique to convert algae to fuels, including aviation fuels. "It seems likely that one of the first commercial bio-fuel powered jet flights will be a New Zealand aircraft in partnership with Boeing," Maharey said.
New Zealand remains a largely rural nation, with 60 to 65% of the economy reliant on agriculture, Maharey said. Famous for its millions of sheep, New Zealand's drive to reduce greenhouse emissions inevitably must deal with the methane released by sheep and cattle. Such "ruminant methane production," he said, accounts for 43% of New Zealand's total greenhouse gas emissions. It is not a problem that will be easily solved, Maharey said. But scientists must grapple with such issues if New Zealand is to achieve a carbon-neutral lifestyle.
New Zealand farmers and ranchers, who export many of their agricultural commodities to distant lands, also have had to address the view—popular recently in the United Kingdom—that the sustainability of a food product should be measured by the distance it travels from producer to plate. New Zealand officials argue that more than 99% of their farm products travel to Britain by ships rather than air freight. Such transportation adds little more energy consumption than the energy cost of taking the goods home from the supermarket by car, they argue.
It makes more sense, they say, to label goods according to the total energy costs and carbon emissions (taking into account production and transport). A study by Lincoln University in New Zealand found those measures were four times higher for lamb produced in Britain than for lamb produced in New Zealand, twice as high for dairy products and significantly higher for apples and onions.
New Zealand's wine industry also has been moving toward more sustainable practices, Maharey said. It has a goal of operating completely under independently audited sustainability plans by 2012. One winery, Grove Mill in Marlborough, already is producing certified "carbon neutral" wines and has seen sales surge in Britain as a result.
The New Zealand government also is linking biosecurity and species protection to its sustainability vision. Pests and diseases that threaten the viability of the country's native forests, for example also threaten a natural "sink" for sequestering or releasing carbon. Scientists have used pheromone attractants and other measures to eradicate two moth species—both closely related to the gypsy moth—that were a threat to forests and conservation areas.
"New Zealand's reputation as a country with a clean and green environment is priceless," Prime Minister Helen Clark of New Zealand said recently. "Failure to protect it by inaction on sustainability, or dragging our feet on climate change as the climate change deniers insist, would pose a considerable economic risk to New Zealand, and that would be devastating to our reputation."
The nation's geographic location beyond the international dateline makes it the first major country to see the first light of each new day, Maharey said. He used that image to note that New Zealanders also "want to be the first to see the light about how to be a sustainable, carbon-neutral country." While larger nations will have to rebuild huge, costly energy infrastructures and replace hundreds of millions of cars, Maherey said, his nation's push for a sustainable economy and lifestyle is more manageable. New Zealand can become a country, he said, that allows others to say: "That's the future, that's how it can be done."
5 November 2007